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First-Timer for Everything

Koclanes Leaves AU for Women’s Hoop; Riley Promoted With Soccer

Hanover — Yesterday was a long haul for Drew Galbraith, one of Dartmouth College’s senior associate athletic directors.

At 6:30 a.m., on a frost-tipped practice field in the shadow of Balch Hill, Galbraith informed the men’s soccer team that assistant Chad Riley had been promoted to head coach. A little more than 12 hours later, Galbraith ushered former American University women’s basketball assistant Belle Koclanes into a Berry Center conference room to meet her new squad.

“Part of the job,” Galbraith said with a grin. “A really good part of the job.”

Optimism abounded yesterday around two Big Green programs in vastly different circumstances. The men’s soccer team has been of Ivy League championship caliber for years, making regular NCAA tournament appearances, and previous coach Jeff Cook stepped down earlier this month for a job with the Philadelphia Union of Major League Soccer.

The women’s basketball team was of similar quality as recently as 2009, when it won the most recent of its 17 Ivy titles. The Big Green is a combined 30-82 since that point, however, and longtime bench boss Chris Wielgus resigned in March with the program in shambles. Dartmouth’s performance the last three years is its worst since Ivy League play began in 1976.

Regardless, Dartmouth athletic director Harry Sheehy is convinced he’s got the right people in the right positions and at the right time.

Since arriving at Dartmouth from Williams (Mass.) College in 2010, he has brought in new faces to run the women’s soccer, volleyball and softball programs. After a disappointing first season, women’s soccer executed a stunning turnaround last year and narrowly missed an Ivy title. Volleyball has struggled, but the softball team heads into this weekend’s final league games atop the league’s North Division.

“The key thing about (Riley and Koclanes) is their passion,’’ Sheehy said. “It’s about translating that into the kids having a true love of the game, about being able to teach young people who want to be inspired.”

Riley, 32 and a former Notre Dame standout and assistant, has made that connection with the men’s soccer players in a little more than a year, said co-captain Kevin Dzierzawski. Riley beat out 14-year Wesleyan (Conn.) College coach Geoff Wheeler, who played at Dartmouth and has guided the Cardinals to five NCAA Division III appearances in the last seven seasons.

“Even if he’s only been here for 14 months, the support that he has gotten from the team through this whole process speaks volumes about how we feel about him,’’ Dzierzawski said. “Every single practice, he makes you a better player by putting you in a discomfort zone to make you realize there are weaknesses you need to work on.

“At the same time, he’s very good at managing relationships. He talks to you in a conversational tone, very give-and-take. It’s not a coach telling you something and demanding that you accept it. It’s almost therapeutic.”

Riley said he had Cook’s support to become his successor from the start of the hiring process, but that he was impressed by how thoroughly athletic department administrators looked at other candidates and evaluated which would be best.

“It’s always easy to pass the baton without a lot of thought, but they showed some real commitment to the program by the way they handled the process,’’ said Riley, who began his coaching career with yearlong stops as an assistant at Oberlin College in Ohio and St. John’s in Queens, N.Y., before returning to South Bend, Ind., and working under former Dartmouth coach Bobby Clark for six seasons.

Koclanes, 31, has also bounced around, moving from her native Pelham, N.Y., just north of New York City, to the University of Richmond (Va.), where she starred as a 5-foot-1 point guard for the Division I Spiders. After a brief stint playing professionally in Greece, she earned a master’s degree from New York University while interning as Columbia’s director of basketball operations. From there it was on to a four-year stop as an assistant at the University of Pennsylvania, followed by three years in the same position under the legendary Wendy Larry at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.

When Larry was unceremoniously ushered out as the Monarchs’ boss, Koclanes landed at American in Washington, D.C, where she worked two years as the recruiting coordinator under head coach Matt Corkery, a known defensive strategist. Koclanes said she decided to start pursuing head coaching jobs after the 2012-13 season and applied last month for the opening at Columbia. That post went to Stephanie Glance, the former Illinois State head coach and a 25-year veteran of the profession who previously worked at Tennessee and North Carolina State.

Koclanes said she was interviewed via Skype but did not progress to an on-campus meeting with Lions officials. Yesterday, however, her focus was completely on the Big Green.

“We’re going to play in a different style than the players here are used to,” said Koclanes, whose playmaking skills at Richmond sparked a run-and-gun attack. “I want to play faster than they’re used to playing, but I need to see what I’m working with and do what’s best for our personnel. We’re going to get after it on the defensive end, diving for balls and rotating and taking charges.”

Koclanes talked yesterday about how she met with the Dartmouth players last week during a series of interviews in Hanover. She described handing out index cards and markers and asking the young women to create “personal flags” that incorporated designs and words to describe themselves, their motivations and their support system.

“We just had a hiccup of time, but I told them I considered this our first team meeting and that I care about discovering who you are, no matter if I get an hour or four years with you,’’ said Koclanes, whose graduate degree is in culture and communication. “I need to know you as people so I can motivate you to play for me and for each other.”

Said Sheehy: “If I’m a mom or dad and Belle is sitting in my living room on a recruiting visit, I’m going to be pretty happy with the idea of my daughter playing for her.”

The athletic director said he’s always on the lookout for assistants at other schools whose leadership, charisma and teaching ability transcend athletics and carry over to life skills in general. He noted that he had no experience as either a head coach or an athletic director when Williams hired him for those posts, and he clearly isn’t adverse to giving those he believes in their first chance at a program’s helm.

“You try and recognize people who are ready for the next step and to discern whether they can get the job done at this level,’’ Sheehy said. “It’s sometimes evident when you sit across the table from someone, even if they’re an assistant, that they have ‘head coach’ stamped on their forehead. That was the case with both Chad and Belle. We’re very excited they’re with us.”

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.