When Tribe field hockey head coach Tess Ellis was 21 years old, her grandfather told her it was time to give up playing hockey and get a real job.
She never expected that her real job would be a collegiate field hockey coach in Williamsburg, Virginia, halfway around the world from her hometown in New South Wales, Australia. At the age of 54, Ellis is finishing up her sixth season as the head coach of the William and Mary varsity field hockey team.
Ellis’ road to the head coaching position at the College was a long and winding one that included three separate stints as an assistant for the Tribe, as well as several different positions on the coaching staff for USA Field Hockey teams.
“That’s when I probably first really discovered American kids were getting scholarships to come play field hockey, and until then, [I] never really thought about a career being a coach.”
Similar to many other coaches, Ellis got her first introduction to the sport by playing in her youth. She went on to compete with the Australian National Indoor team until just prior to her 28th birthday. Ellis picked up and moved to London, England, where she lived for the next year. While she was there, she helped out with the Hampstead Heath field hockey club. After about a year, Ellis decided to escape the London weather and move to the United States. It was there that she first realized the potential opportunities in collegiate coaching.
“… That’s when I probably first really discovered American kids were getting scholarships to come play field hockey, and until then, [I] never really thought about a career being a coach,” Ellis said.
In 1991, Ellis had her first introduction to the Tribe field hockey program, when she met the school’s head coach at the time, Peel Hawthorne ’80, at a camp for USA Field Hockey. Dawn Chamberlin, the head coach at D-III Salisbury, was also at the camp, and she was looking for an assistant coach. When she approached Ellis about the job, Ellis accepted the position for the 1992 season.
“That was my introduction into collegiate sport,” Ellis said. “Which wasn’t bad, because we went to the Final Four that year.”
Fresh off of a successful season at Salisbury, Ellis moved to Williamsburg for the 1993 season, her first stint as an assistant coach at the College. Ellis would stay in that position through the 2000 season. In the middle of this eight-year stretch at the College, Ellis also earned her first position with USA Field Hockey. She was a part of the coaching staff for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia.
“… At the time, the head coach of the US Program was a woman by the name of Pam Hixon, and they really liked the attacking style of Australian hockey,” Ellis said. “So I guess I was sort of their connection to Australian hockey.”
Ellis left her position at the College for three years in the early 2000s. Once again, she took a job with USA Field Hockey. During these three years, she was the head coach of the under-21 and under-23 national teams, as well as a coach during the 2001 Junior World Cup and an assistant for the senior national team. In this period, Ellis and the national team went through the national tragedy of Sept. 11. Ellis recalls that the team was finishing up practice before traveling out of the country later that week.
“We took a vote as a team [on] if they could get us out of the country, would we leave,” Ellis said. “And everybody was on board to go, but then the government took that choice away from us, and it was a great experience in the sense of seeing the hockey community internationally recognize that it wasn’t our fault that we couldn’t make it to the tournament.”
The national team ended up defeating India in a play-in test series in order to qualify for the World Cup.
“It is that connection to family that does grab you hook, line and sinker. And when you’re here, it’s a hard place to walk away from.”
In 2003, Ellis once again found herself back at the College, this time as a volunteer assistant coach. For Ellis, there was just something special about the school and its field hockey program that kept pulling her back in throughout her coaching career.
“It is that connection to family that does grab you hook, line and sinker,” Ellis said. “And when you’re here, it’s a hard place to walk away from.”
Ellis turned down a head coaching position at Saint Louis because she did not get the same feeling she did about the program and people at the College. In 2013, Ellis had spent 17 total seasons with the College when she finally got her unconventional opportunity to be head coach.
“… For me it came out of the blue,” Ellis said. “Because I didn’t know at the time that Peel [Hawthorne] had applied for the position that she now holds. And we were about two days from preseason.”
Hawthorne had applied and been selected for an administrative position with Tribe Athletics, and she named Ellis as interim head coach. Ellis then scrambled to prepare for the season and make sure she had a solid staff around her. During the season, the team played hard for Ellis, who was still coaching under the interim status, and picked up a marquee victory over fifth-ranked Virginia in October 2013. After that win, Ellis’ interim tag was lifted, and she officially became the head coach of the program. However, Ellis did not immediately notify her players about her official promotion.
“I kept saying, ‘You better play hard, we better win, because this is my lifeline and if we lose, I’m not going to get this job,’” Ellis said. “After we beat UVA, I didn’t tell the team that I had officially become head coach. It just stayed a joke.”
Eventually, once the team had savored the victory over the Cavaliers, Ellis made the news official, and her tenure as head coach was off and running. Ellis brought her trademark humility, honesty and open communication to the table as head coach but does not shy away from talking about the success she wants the field hockey program to have.
“The way I look at it is that if the Princetons, the Stanfords and the Harvards can do it, why not William and Mary?” Ellis said.
Ellis and the Tribe consistently schedule a treacherous non-conference slate and compete in the strong Colonial Athletic Association, with national contenders like 2016 national champion Delaware. Despite all the hopes for success and the time and effort Ellis and her staff put into that goal, the most important thing to Ellis is to run the program the right way.
“The way I look at it is that if the Princetons, the Stanfords and the Harvards can do it, why not William and Mary?”
Ellis stresses that she wants to treat her players like adults and let them make decisions to learn and grow from. She asks for honesty and open communication from her players, and she strives to give them the same in return.
“It’s just trying to have adult conversation to find out why things are happening the way they are in their life,” Ellis said.
Ellis’ time at the College has resulted in several individual recognitions, including two CAA coach of the year awards and winning National Coach of the Year in 2017, according to SynapseSports.com. She also led the Tribe to its first CAA championship game in 15 years last season. Oct. 5, Ellis picked up the 50th win of her tenure against Towson at Busch Field.
“… As a coach I can come up with the best game plan but they have to pull it off on the field,” Ellis said. “There’s a reason the players get the gold medals and not the coaches.”
Even if she does not want to steal the spotlight from her players, Ellis still has unfinished business of her own. She takes great pride in her role in shaping the lives of college-age women here at the College and has dreams of taking the field hockey program to unprecedented heights. Ultimately, she hopes she can have an impact on her players and that they will keep fond memories of their time with Tribe field hockey. Based on the relationships she has with some former players, it seems she is well on her way to achieving that legacy.
“I had two grads, 38 years of age, literally phoning me at 11:45 the other night because they knew I’d pick up, and I said of course I’m going to pick up the phone,” Ellis said. “And I guess they’re comfortable enough that they can still phone me in the middle of the night.”
From how hard the 2013 squad played to help Ellis maintain the job she worked so hard to earn, to the former players who still consider her a friend decades later, others show what Ellis is too humble to say: she has had a tremendous impact on this school and the field hockey players who make the decision to play their hearts out for her.