A world of experience lifts Quinnipiac athletics

By Chris Brodeur August 24, 2022

Coach Kyle Robinson talks with a volleyball player on the court

As a kid growing up in Philadelphia, Quinnipiac women’s volleyball coach Kyle Robinson never dreamed of the places the sport would take him. 

Robinson, who is entering his fourth season with the Bobcats, played professionally in Greece, Belgium and Puerto Rico. He traveled to France with the U.S. senior national team in 2000 and narrowly missed making the 2004 Olympic squad that finished fourth in Athens. And during a four-year coaching stint with USA Volleyball, he brought teams of elite college players to China.  

But in taking up volleyball as a teenager, he was just trying to escape the realities of a rough neighborhood. 
 
“When people call you up and say, ‘Hey, do you want to join the national team?’ I go, ‘What are you talking about?’” Robinson recently recalled from his office, where his framed No. 2 USA jersey hangs prominently. “I know poverty and violence. I don’t know anything about the national team.” 

Today, it’s virtually impossible for Robinson to imagine his life or career without the stars and stripes, and he’s not alone on a campus with a coaching collective that’s uncommonly versed in competing on the world stage.  

As athletes. As coaches. As administrators. And, in some cases, all of the above. 

These are rare opportunities, the kind that hone personal coaching philosophies, grow professional networks and foster deeper bonds with student-athletes. The coaches are “brand ambassadors” for the university as athletic director Greg Amodio put it, and their outside achievements heighten awareness of their programs in Hamden. 

This was another busy summer on that front for both ice hockey teams. Men’s coach Rand Pecknold began the process of assembling his roster as head coach of the 2023 U.S. national junior hockey team, an assignment that reunited him with Quinnipiac alumnus Reid Cashman and former goaltending coach Jared Waimon. Video coordinator Shawn Roche and equipment manager Rob Kennedy will also accompany Pecknold on the national team staff. 

“To get the head job is in a whole other category — it’s another level above a huge honor,” said Pecknold, who twice served as an assistant with the under-18 men’s national team, helping the Americans win a silver medal at the 2018 IIHF U18 world championship. “It’s been a unique learning experience for me. I’m excited about what comes next.” 

Women’s coach Cassie Turner, whose decorated stint as a player with Hockey Canada preceded a successful coaching run, remains a fixture in the organization. And her assistants Brent Hill and Amanda Alessi had roles with the American and Canadian camps, respectively, in preparation for next year’s world championships.  

Such appointments are, of course, a boon for recruiting, a powerful conversation starter that’s yielded some of the most diverse collegiate rosters in the region. But the Bobcats coaches and staff members who have been tapped for these roles all say the experience of representing your country is valuable in ways that aren’t easily quantified. 

“It was the first time in my life where people were looking up to me, and I felt a sense of responsibility,” Robinson said. “Not so much for my game, but because of what I was wearing on my chest.” 

Many of his peers can relate to this feeling — that pinch-me moment when certain sights and sounds formed an indelible memory. 

“I hear the national anthem, and I am immediately taken to a time in my life that I got to play for the U.S.,” said Becca Main, Quinnipiac’s longtime field hockey coach, who visited Holland, Argentina and Ireland as a member of the U.S. national training team from 1993-95. Suiting up in red, white and blue “catapulted” her to a Division I coaching job at the age of 23, she said, and the pride she felt wearing those colors hasn’t faded. 

Turner vividly remembers how she felt the first time she pulled on a practice jersey emblazoned with a red maple leaf at a tryout in 2001. She had to stifle her emotions when she heard “O Canada” before a game in Switzerland. 

“I remember thinking, ‘Don’t cry, don’t cry, it would be embarrassing, don’t cry,’” recalled Turner. “Just knowing how lucky you are to have that opportunity to represent your country as an athlete — it’s an amazing feeling.” 

A balancing act 

Over his 24 years with U.S. women’s soccer, Dave Clarke has found himself in NFL stadiums, war-torn countries and everywhere in between. A native of Ireland with dual U.S. citizenship, he gets “fiercely American” whenever he sports that familiar crest. 

Everything is about the badge, the representation, the standard,” said Clarke, who’s in his 23rd season coaching the Quinnipiac women’s soccer team. 

Make no mistake: Clarke’s devotion to the Bobcats is just as fierce. His relationship with the USWNT and its feeder programs predates his arrival at the university, and a longstanding arrangement with the administration allows him to maintain this delicate balance — sometimes wearing one hat within hours of removing the other. 

Clarke’s continent-hopping career is perhaps best illustrated by a whirlwind two-day stretch in September 2008.

First, he fulfilled his duties as an assistant coach for the Irish national team in an exhibition match against a star-studded American side at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Illinois. 

Then, he hustled home on a redeye flight to lead the Bobcats to victory in an early-season encounter with a Northeast Conference rival the following afternoon. 

A friend snapped a photo of Clarke underneath the scoreboard in Illinois — his adopted home country scored a 2-0 victory over his birthplace — and another shot captured him on the old grass soccer field at Quinnipiac using a similar composition. 

The symmetry has always tickled Clarke, who received his master’s degree in journalism from Quinnipiac in 2010. He has a wealth of stories to fill the pages of a memoir someday, but for now, he can regale recruits with his memories of working with Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo. 

Legendary U.S. women’s coach Tony DiCiccio was on the guest list for Clarke’s wedding on July 10, 1999, but had a reasonable excuse for skipping it — the Women’s World Cup final in Pasadena, California.

Clarke never saw the penalty shootout that produced the iconic image of Brandi Chastain ripping off her jersey after burying the kick that beat China, but a handful of well-dressed hooligans snuck out of the reception and watched at a bar on the premises. 

Then, as now, Clarke has always kept his priorities in order. That he continues to work steadily with U.S. soccer without sacrificing a minute of his main responsibilities is a testament to his teaching ability, and he feels a kinship with the other long-tenured coaches on campus who can do the same. 

“You take pride when [your colleagues] go and work with national teams,” Clarke said. “It’s a good representation of all of the staff. It’s a good representation of the school. And it’s a good representation of the standard of coach that Greg has tried to bring in. To be honest, there are schools that don’t allow it to happen.” 

There’s no hesitation on the part of athletic department leadership when these opportunities arise. 

“We’re the first ones to say, ‘Yes, you’ve got to go do that,’” Amodio said. “It’s great for them. It’s great for our program. The Quinnipiac name is out there constantly.  

“They’ve earned those opportunities. We never want to take that off the table. That’s a reward for all of their success.” 

Lessons in humility 

Earning a national team roster spot comes with a built-in ego check. It’s not unlike the hierarchy of a college team; a new batch of standout high school performers is always waiting in the wings, pushing for coveted positions in the starting lineup.  

Being a member of the U.S. women’s ice hockey team that won silver at the 1999 IIHF World Championships gave Quinnipiac deputy athletic director Sarah Fraser a “pioneering feeling” because it came on the heels of the Nagano Olympics — the first Winter Games to include the sport. The seeds were planted for Fraser’s long and distinguished tenure on USA Hockey’s board of directors, but playing time was scarce for the former All-American forward at Dartmouth.  

“It was an experience I had never had before in sports, which was to be on the bottom half of a team,” said Fraser, whose 15 years of service earned her the organization’s President’s Award in June. “That has helped me better understand what athletes are going through in college or at other levels. You come from high school, where you’re a big fish and here you’re not. So I can empathize a whole lot better having had that experience with the national team.” 

Main was a two-time All-American at Penn State before being relegated to a reserve role with the American squad that won bronze at the 1994 Women’s Hockey World Cup in Dublin. 

“It’s this weird feeling of being at the bottom of the barrel,” said Main, who played in three Final Fours with the Nittany Lions and was honored as the Big Ten’s defensive player of the year in 1993. “It humbles you, and it teaches you, and it helps you to empathize with first-year college players.”  

Trying out for the Canadian national team was crucial to Turner’s development as a coach. She saw the way nerves manifested as fear, how players were so focused on being mistake-free that they forgot to have any fun. She knew right then that she’d operate a team quite differently if given the chance.  

“I remember at times feeling like, ‘Am I good enough to be here?’” said Turner, who is entering her eighth season as head coach at Quinnipiac and 14th year with the program. “When I got the opportunity to coach, I was excited because, while I could never remove the pressure, I wanted to create a culture within our group where people felt a lot more confident and more comfortable to be themselves. It allowed them to play like themselves.” 

Getting cut before the Summer Olympics didn’t make Robinson bitter. Instead, he gained an appreciation for the players on the fringes of a roster, the ones who need to work a little harder to get noticed. 

An opposite hitter with the senior national team who discovered his voice as a leader, Robinson remembers those years as “the time of my life,” he said. Studying how world-class players carried themselves built his foundation for coaching and allowed him to “engage with athletes on a down-to-earth” level. 

“It gave me a lot more pride,” Robinson said. “To put on the jersey and go to a tournament and hear people chanting your name and chanting U-S-A, this is what it should feel like. This is what pride for your country should feel like. After that, I was hooked.” 

Standard-bearers and program-builders 

The gold medal game in the 2015 U18 IIHF women’s world championship in Buffalo was a classic showdown pitting Canada against the U.S. It was also a showcase for Quinnipiac women’s ice hockey — albeit a divided one. 

Turner was on the Canadian bench alongside Alessi. The Bobcats’ captain and star forward Melissa Samoskevich was in the Americans’ lineup, taking instruction from Hill, an assistant coach. The details of Team USA’s 3-2 victory are still agonizingly fresh. 

“I think it was a 4-on-3 [advantage] in overtime, not that I can remember that,” Turner said with a laugh.  

College coaches who are handed the reins of a national team are afforded the trust to essentially import a simplified version of the system they use at their primary posts — and that includes staff members. 

It’s no surprise, then, that Pecknold and Turner — two established program-builders whose teams are consistently ranked in the top 10 in the country — would continue to attract these positions, and, in turn, use them to amplify the Bobcat hockey brand on a global scale. 

Collaborating with other top Division I coaches, as well as the leadership at USA Hockey throughout the preparation period, is an educational experience that’s already making Pecknold a better coach, he said. But the man who’s approaching his 30th season with the team he forged into a powerhouse estimates he’ll employ “90-95%” of the “Quinnipiac structure and Quinnipiac systems” once the games begin in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Moncton, New Brunswick, in December. 

Clarke’s institutional knowledge is similarly in demand. In his role as an instructor with U.S. soccer, he has mentored coaches who have won national championships and prepared them for the A-senior license exam. Like his ice hockey contemporaries, Clarke is a standard-bearer for Quinnipiac, a key player with access to the most exclusive circles of his sport.  

Each new opportunity to work with a national team is a signal the Bobcat blueprint is one worth following. 

“The longevity as a coach allows you to develop a philosophy,” Clarke said. “Rand and Cassandra have clear philosophies. I do, too.” 

“Our university has created this feeling of being a part of something bigger than yourself,” Turner said. “People who have been part of national team experiences — that’s what you’re doing. You’re representing something much larger than you. We have that same sort of feeling. There’s pride in saying that you’re a part of Quinnipiac University.” 

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