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Hanover Grad Continues Family Tradition

Her father came to the United States to coach soccer. Her younger brother followed in Dad’s boot-steps. And her older brother founded a charitable organization that employs the sport to combat the scourge of AIDS.

So one would figure that Jen Clark would find a career in the sport, right? Well …

That wasn’t the intended plan for the 1990 Hanover High and 1994 Dartmouth College graduate. For Clark, just playing soccer was enough. But a stint at youth coaching scratched an invisible itch that — 20 years later — finds Clark in San Antonio for this weekend’s NCAA Division III women’s soccer championship.

Clark is now a third-year assistant coach with the Middlebury College women (17-1-3), who make their first D-III College Cup appearance this afternoon against hometown favorite Trinity (Texas; 24-0-2). A win would place Clark and company into Saturday’s final against New York’s William Smith (21-1-0) or Ohio’s Capital University (19-4-2). The matches take place at 8,000-seat Toyota Field, home of the San Antonio Scorpions of the second-tier North American Soccer League.

Clark “never, never, never” thought about coaching during her Upper Valley years, she admitted in a phone interview on Thursday. “Playing was the only thing that was fun. But in high school, I started helping with the little guys in (Upper Valley) Lightning. By the time I got through college, I was totally immersed in it and loved it.”

Clark has followed a zigzag existence since.

Playing for coach Hank Tenney at Hanover in the late 1980s, Clark concentrated more on defensive duties than attack, a fact borne out by her one career high school goal. Back then, Tenney needed his midfielders to concentrate on preventing scores rather than boosting the forward line.

“She was a coaches’ player,” Tenney recalled on Thursday. “She had a great attitude; her work ethic was just as good as anyone on the team. She was one of those kids who believed in what she was doing, believed in the coaching, believed in the system. She was fun to have around.”

Clark didn’t play soccer at Dartmouth, where her father, Bobby, was in the midst of both guiding the Big Green men to unaccustomed success and founding what is now the Lightning Soccer Club youth program. Having gotten a start there, Clark spent her senior year at Dartmouth helping then-Big Green women’s coach Steve Swanson, eventually following him (and her father) to Stanford in the mid-1990s.

“I figured a year (with Swanson) would be good; it would let me figure out what else I wanted to do,” Clark said. “After a year with him, I decided coaching was what I wanted to do.

“I thought I would go into teaching. I loved my geography professors at Dartmouth; they were an interesting bunch of people. … I majored in geography and loved that, but I didn’t know where that would take me career-wise.”

It would take a mapmaker to track the places Clark has gone since.

After Stanford, she returned east to assist at William & Mary, helping the Tribe to the NCAA D-I quarterfinals and meeting her future husband, Mike Morgan. After a stretch where Morgan coached tennis at Notre Dame while she guided women’s soccer at D-III Christopher Newport, the two moved back west to California’s Claremont McKenna College, then jumped back east to Maine’s Colby College and, eventually, to Middlebury when Morgan accepted the women’s tennis coaching job with the Panthers seven years ago.

Tenth-year Middlebury women’s soccer coach Peter Kim lured Clark onto his staff on a part-time basis in 2010 after she’d spent four years reviving the fortunes of the Middlebury High girls soccer program. Working with the Panthers now allows Clark to juggle both of her primary passions: teaching the game while raising her daughter (Mhairi, 2½) and two sons (Tam, 11; Rory, 7).

“Peter has been flexible with the schedule, allowing me to be there and do what I’m able to do within the parameters of also being a mom, which has been phenomenal,” said Clark, 40. “It’s why I’ve given up being a head coach, to be home with the kids.”

The Panthers beat Bridgewater (Mass.) State, Endicott and Johns Hopkins to earn the Texas trip. Seniors Scarlett Kirk (NESCAC-best 16 goals) and Julia Favorito (NESCAC player of the year) lead the Middlebury attack, while senior back Lindsay Kingston and senior goalkeeper Elizabeth Foody front a defense that boasted 11 shutouts and an 0.47 goals-against average.

Such grand moments are frequently borne from simple beginnings.

“Dad used to drag me along to those (Lightning) practices with the U6s and U8s,” Clark recalled. “By the time I was in college, I was helping the U12 and U14 girls in the spring. That’s where it got started.”

Now look where it’s led.

NCAA women’s soccer championship weekend is extending beyond Middlebury to the person who first employed Clark as an assistant coach.

In his 14th season at Virginia, Swanson has his Cavaliers in the Division I College Cup for the first time in program history. The pre-tournament championship favorite and the nation’s top offensive squad, Virginia plays UCLA, the country’s top defensive side, in tonight’s semifinals in Cary, N.C. A win would send the Cavs into Sunday’s title match against either Virginia Tech or Florida State.

The Cavaliers (24-1), who average more than three goals a match, were the first team in a decade to run their ACC regular-season table. Their only loss came in the conference semifinals to Tech, also in Cary, last month.

Swanson coached Dartmouth from 1990-95, going 55-35-7 and leading the Big Green to its first two NCAA tournament appearances. He also coached the United States to the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup championship in 2012.

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.