Pass It OnPublished by Susan Olcott for Bowdoin Magazine
In her eleventh season at Bowdoin, head coach Adrienne Shibles has led the women’s basketball team to incredible success on the court, but it’s her influence beyond the bench that might be her biggest win.
When Bowdoin's women's basketball head coach Adrienne Shibles was honored as the NCAA Division III National Coach of the Year in April of this year, at the Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) national convention in Tampa Bay, Florida, she used the opportunity to recognize others—two of her former players, Megan Phelps and Sara Binkhorst, both Class of 2015 and cocaptains of the Polar Bears in 2014–2015. Phelps and Binkhorst had just been named as two of the WBCA 30-Under-30, and they were both in the audience that day. (“There were more than 500 people there, but Bink and I were the loudest,” Phelps says.)
Shibles may be the winningest coach in Bowdoin women’s basketball history, but “it’s not about her. It’s never about her,” says Phelps, who is now her assistant coach. “Adrienne teaches you that it isn’t all about you either. It’s about the team.”
Phelps and Binkhorst—and seven of Shibles’s other former players or assistant coaches—are now women’s basketball coaches themselves, building their own networks of collegiate players and leaders at Middlebury, Bates, Trinity, Smith, Wheaton, Southern Maine Community College, and Tufts, and as far as Loyola Chicago.
“My passion for coaching goes beyond that I love the game. It’s more about developing leadership through this tool that is basketball.”
These connections began with a model of shared leadership that Shibles builds with her teams. Rather than leading the team from the head coach down, the team’s leadership comes from the inside. Players create a job description for their captains, and prospective captains have to submit a written application for the position. They then go through a formal interview process in which every player can ask them questions. Jeff Ward, former Bowdoin athletic director and part of the hiring team that brought Shibles to Bowdoin, remembers thinking that “the captain selection process seemed a little risky at first, because you’re asking the kids to really put themselves out there. But that process elevated the bar for their ownership and their responsibility.” Lydia Caputi ’18 recalls that it wasn’t easy. “It felt overwhelming at first, but then I realized my voice mattered right away as a first-year. When I got to my first job interview, I thought, ‘I’ve done this before.’ I already knew how to articulate my strengths and weaknesses.” She’s now an assistant coach at Trinity College. Katie Bergeron ’11 said the feedback she got from her teammates as a part of that captain selection was “the most helpful feedback I’ve ever gotten. I really had to articulate my leadership style. You have to have confidence to step forward and offer your opinion. You learn to critique and take suggestions, knowing that it comes from a place of goodness.” Bergeron is now the head coach at Southern Maine Community College (SMCC). Her assistant this year is one of her former campers at Polar Bear Basketball Camp, a weeklong summer program for girls age ten to sixteen, where many Bowdoin women’s basketball team members work as coaches in the summer.
LEADERSHIP AND GROWTH THROUGH ATHLETICS
Shibles grew up in Knox, Maine, on a small dairy farm that had been in her family for generations. She played basketball with her brother in their grandmother’s driveway next door, but she didn’t get into sports until middle school. “I was in eighth grade, and I’d signed up for cheerleading, if you can believe that. Then the varsity coach approached me and said, ‘I think you should really come out for basketball.’ It was probably because I was tall,” she laughs. “I was intimidated at first, because we had a lot of good players, but I had a very warm coach who created a family atmosphere. I was surrounded by girls who were all high achievers, and it gave me a lot of confidence as a young, awkward girl.” Shibles, who went on to be a two-time captain and 1,000-point scorer for the Bates Bobcats, was growing into an athlete at an important point in the history of women’s sports—the period after the passage of Title IX, which required equitable opportunities for sports, regardless of gender. More teams across a variety of sports offered girls and women a new vehicle to develop confidence. “My experience at that time really impacted who I am today and the career I chose,” she recalls. “My passion for coaching goes beyond that I love the game. It’s more about developing leadership through this tool that is basketball.”
Shibles learned from those early experiences that it takes every player doing their best to make a great team. “I was a great defender and rebounder, but I didn’t take a shot unless I was wide open under the basket. I didn’t get my name in the paper, but I knew I was helpingthe team. It was clear that that was my role, and I appreciated that.” As a coach, Shibles makes sure that every player is an integral part of the team, and that they work together to play their very best. “You can see her coaching style in the numbers,” says Assistant Athletic Director for Communications Jim Caton. “Two years ago, Kate Kerrigan ’18 was named the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association player of the year, but she only averaged twenty minutes a game. That’s because of the depth and style of the program—the game is spread across its players.” Bergeron saw Bowdoin demonstrate this depth during her time coaching at Emmanuel College, when her team played against the Polar Bears. “Bowdoin’s point guard got injured, and my team saw an opening, but I told them, ‘Someone always steps up on this team.’ And someone did. Now I bring my team from SMCC to watch Bowdoin games so they can see this.”
Caputi, who grew up in Brunswick, learned to step up as a camper at Shibles’s Polar Bear Basketball Camp when she was only eight years old. “I had the chance to be a leader right away—even then,” she says. Her camp mentor was older camper Jill Pace ’12 (then Jill Henrikson), who grew up in Bath and went on to play for Bowdoin. As a middle and high schooler, Caputi watched Pace and her fellow Polar Bears play and thought playing for Bowdoin herself someday was only a dream. But Caputi became a Polar Bear too, and in one of her first practices for Shibles, she learned, “You can’t disappear on this team. Halfway through practice, Coach called a water break and pulled me aside. She said, ‘You realize I put you on this [scrimmage] team for a reason. I made this team so that you would be its leader. I put all the captains on the other team. If you don’t know it already, I need you to realize that you are a leader.’” Now, in her own coaching, Caputi makes it a point to make sure to reach out to even the youngest players and give them opportunities to lead.
EVOLVING A COACHING STYLE
Striving to instill a high level of confidence in young women while also shaping them into the best basketball players has required Shibles to strike just the right balance. When Shibles arrived at Bowdoin in 2008, she joined a program that had seen history-making success over the previous ten years under Head Coach Stefanie Pemper, whose teams were especially dominant at home, where they won seventy-six consecutive games between 2001 and 2007. “My first year at Bowdoin, we won our conference championship, and from the outside it was a seamless transition,” she says. “But it was hard to take over a great program and build the trust I needed with the players. It forced me to make some decisions that ended up being great for the program and for my own style.”
According to her players and assistant coaches, “Coach overcommunicates—except that there’s no such thing,” says KJ Krasco, Shibles’s assistant from 2011–2014 who is now head coach at Middlebury College. The same word popped up again in conversations with several of her other former players. Bergeron laughed as she said, “I think we all probably say the same things, because she was so clear about our team culture.” Vulnerability, accountability, and empowerment were words that each of the young coaches coming out of Shibles’s teams used to describe the themes she instilled. “She taught us to be intentional communicators and that language is very important,” said Binkhorst. “From the moment we arrived on campus, she called us ‘women.’ I thought it was weird at first, but it is one of the things I’ve taken with me and one of the most exciting things I now do with my team.” As Bergeron says, “The words you choose to talk with your players is one of the quickest ways to empower and connect with young women.”
“The captain selection process asks us to be vulnerable to each other, and that’s what builds trust and connects us to each other,” says Krasco. “Coach showed us that she is vulnerable too and helps us feel comfortable talking about our strengths and weaknesses,” says Caputi. This means connecting personally with each of her players. Phelps remembered an email that Shibles sent her when she was in high school to gauge her interest in playing for Bowdoin. Among these young coaches there are several Maine girls, and Phelps is one of them, having grown up in a family of lobster fishermen on Mount Desert Island. Shibles discovered that her father and Phelps’s grandfather once taught at the same school in Southwest Harbor. “In her individual check-ins with players, you got to talk with her one-on-one and share concerns in a confidential setting,” says Kerrigan. “Everybody probably thinks she’s their favorite because of how she treats you and how it makes you feel.” In nurturing these relationships, Shibles builds strong connections with her players and between them, centered on honesty and trust. “When we travel, they’re like sisters,” Shibles says. “They’re singing on the bus and chatting about what happened in their classes.” Every one of the young women smiled when they talked about their teammates. Maria Noucas ’09, who recently married, says, “I think I had a whole team’s worth of women’s basketball players at my wedding....We have this coaching tree where we still lean on each other—that’s really unique and cool.” Noucas is now an assistant coach at Loyola Chicago. “I’m really the Bowdoin ambassador out here,” she says. “Not many people know about Bowdoin in the Midwest, but when they look up the basketball program, they say, ‘Whoa, that’s really impressive!’”
COMPETITION AND CONNECTION
They may all be great friends, but now many of these young coaches play against each other—and against their former coach. This might seem tricky, but they’re used to challenging and competing against good friends. “Every drill in practice is competitive,” says Shibles. “I assign women to black and white teams, and they play against each other, and I want them to play hard.” Krasco says, “You hate playing against one of your good friends. We enjoy playing, but we also can’t wait for the game to be over, when we are able to just be friends.” This happens on the road as well, when they are all out recruiting for the coming season. While they may be competing to attract the same players, it’s also a chance for them to catch up, although they might even be a little bit competitive about their friendships. As Pace says, “There are five of us in our class who are best friends—we joke that we are the best class.”
Shibles is invested in building a network of strong leaders at Bowdoin, and she is also dedicated to seeing it spread beyond Bowdoin. It can seem preordained now, with so many players working as coaches, but many of them didn’t think that would be their path; it was Shibles and being part of the Bowdoin program that inspired them to do just that. Alison (Smith) Montgomery ’05 completed her degree in social work but then decided, “I had this remarkable opportunity to influence these young women at an early stage in their lives, and I could use basketball as a vehicle to really prepare them for what’s ahead.” She experienced this even before Bowdoin, when Shibles was one of her counselors at the University of Maine at Orono’s summer basketball camp. She went on to be Shibles’s assistant at Bowdoin and is now the head coach at Bates College. “I feel like we’re soul sisters—women from small towns in Maine spreading leadership through basketball.” Montgomery grew up in Stockton Springs, Maine. “It’s kind of funny that she went to Bates and I went to Bowdoin, and now we’ve switched,” she added. Phelps discovered her love of coaching in an unexpected way as well. She remembers sitting on the bench for several weeks after she broke her leg late in her senior season, chatting with the coaches during games. “Adrienne put me next to those coaches for a reason,” she said. “She had a plan for me. It was then that I realized I wanted to go into coaching.” Shibles has repeatedly spoken up for her young coaches to help them get their first jobs. “When I applied for the position I now have at Bates, Adrienne said, ‘That’s your job to take,’” says Montgomery.
“The way these women carry themselves, they represent the College incredibly well within the community and also set a great example for other programs beyond Bowdoin,” says Director of Athletics Tim Ryan. “How we build our team and what we do, there’s a piece of that here at Middlebury now,” says Krasco. Many of the coaches work with younger players as well. Bergeron coached Maddie Hasson, currently a senior at Bowdoin, when she was a high school player in South Portland. Bergeron babysat for Shibles’s daughters, Madeline and Elsa, when she was a Bowdoin student and coached Elsa in the Maine Firecrackers, an Amateur Athletic Union basketball team. Montgomery recruited Binkhorst to play at Bowdoin, and now Binkhorst’s younger sister is a senior on Montgomery’s team at Bates. “We’re all connected in so many ways,” Binkhorst says. “The ‘web’ is the word that I think of when I think of what she has helped us grow.”
Susan Olcott ’99 lives in Brunswick with her husband, Charles ’99, and their two daughters.
Heather Perry’s photos can be found in National Geographic, Smithsonian, The New York Times, and many other publications. She’s on Instagram at @heathfish.
There’s an extraordinary amount of overlap in these branches of Shibles’s coaching tree.
Alison (Smith) Montgomery ’05
Shibles’s assistant 2008–2011
Head Coach, Bates College
Maria Noucas ’09
Played for Shibles 2008–2009
Assistant Coach, Loyola Chicago
Katie Bergeron ’11
Played for Shibles 2008–2011
Head Coach, Southern Maine Community College
Shibles’s assistant 2011–2014
Head Coach, Middlebury College
Jill (Henrikson) Pace ’12
Played for Shibles 2008–2012
Head Coach, Tufts University
Sara Binkhorst ’15
Played for Shibles 2011–2015
Head Coach, Wheaton College
Megan Phelps ’15
Played for Shibles 2011–2015
Assistant Coach, Bowdoin College
Lydia Caputi ’18
Played for Shibles 2014–2018
Assistant Coach, Trinity College
Kate Kerrigan ’18
Played for Shibles 2014–2018
Assistant Coach, Smith College
This story first appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Bowdoin Magazine. Manage your subscription and see other stories from the magazine on the Bowdoin Magazine website.