In sports, it is common to see a former player enter the coaching world after their playing career is over. What is not common is a former player taking over as a coach immediately after graduating. But to those who know her, Erin Sullivan’s rise to the assistant coaching position should not come as a surprise.
After wrapping up her playing career at Montclair State University, Sullivan is now in her fifth year as an assistant coach for the Montclair State women’s soccer team, working primarily with the defensive unit. She now works alongside many of the same people who once coached her.
Sullivan was a standout center back for the Montclair State women’s soccer team. Through 88 appearances from 2013 to 2016, she led the Red Hawks to the 2014 New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) championship, as well as four consecutive appearances in the NCAA Division III Soccer Tournament throughout her college career. Sullivan was a two-time All-NJAC selection. After her senior year, she was recognized as an NCAA Division III All-American, only the fifth in school history to do so.
Alongside her athletic achievements, Sullivan’s leadership and work ethic played a major role in her hiring. She was Montclair State’s nominee for the NCAA Woman of the Year Award and even won Montclair State’s Scholar Athlete Of The Year Award, earning the highest GPA in the athletic program for the 2016-2017 academic year.
Head coach Patrick Naughter was proud of Sullivan and knew she understood the team’s dynamic.
“As I became an upperclassman, [Naughter] named me captain my senior year so he could really trust me,” Sullivan said. “I understood what we wanted to do. I understood the culture of the team.”
After graduating from Montclair State with a bachelor’s degree in family and child studies, Sullivan looked to continue her education at the Montclair State Graduate School to become a teacher, which provided a perfect opportunity for the former All-American to join the coaching staff.
“My future was always to be a teacher, [so] I went into education and got my master’s here,” Sullivan said. “When I went into my fifth year, which was [graduate] school, [Naughter] asked me to stay on the staff and I was like, ‘Why not? I’ll be around.’ It turned into something I loved doing.”
The game of soccer remains the same for Sullivan, but her responsibilities within it have changed. She swapped her cleats and shinguards for a clipboard and whistle. Her perspective on the game has evolved as well.
“You have to think of it from a team perspective, instead of just me and the girls,” Sullivan said. “With coaching, it’s all about the different pieces, off the field stuff and game planning. Scouting has been awesome and is something you really never see as a player.”
However, the feeling of being a part of the program has not changed. One of her biggest accomplishments so far came from last year’s championship campaign, despite the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
“When we won the NJAC finals last year, that was awesome,” Sullivan said. “Especially with it being a [COVID-19] year, it was kind of a different season, but having the girls be rewarded for all of their hard work and dedication — that was awesome.”
Sullivan isn’t the only Montclair State soccer-alumni-turned-coach on the staff. Before becoming the women’s soccer coach with the most wins of all-time, Naughter played for the men’s side from 1996 to 1999. But, he expressed the importance of having a coach on the staff who can better relate to the Red Hawks of today.
“She’s got a great way with [the team]. She understands them,” Naughter said. “She can relate to them. She grew up in a similar time as them. I never know what these kids are thinking — she does.”
Sullivan and Naughter’s success as Red Hawks has been intertwined. Throughout Naughter’s 12 seasons as head coach, Sullivan has been involved for 10. She was a natural fit for a coaching position.
“I think we always look to have people who know the program, the area and the soccer community around here,” Sullivan said. “Obviously [going] through the [soccer program at Montclair State] helps us all be on the same page when we are coaching.”
Sullivan’s expansive knowledge of the game has paid dividends for the team. Montclair State’s recent success on the pitch has much to do with their defensive play. This year’s defense has only allowed 13 goals throughout the entire season, tied for third-best in the NJAC.
Junior defender Mackenzie Cangro credits Sullivan for much of their success.
“She knows exactly what she’s doing,” Cangro said. “She brings her playing experience [to the team]. She really helps bring the defense together. During warmups, the defense does our own drills and that’s what hypes us up.”
Whether as a player or coach, Sullivan has always been the glue that keeps the Red Hawks together. She is someone these ladies can lean on both on and off the field in a way the rest of the coaching staff might not be able to.
Cangro also loves the energy that Sullivan brings to the team.
“I find it really rewarding and amazing,” Cangro said. “She is someone I look up to because she was a great player on and off the field. She’s a role model. She got every award you could think of, so she set the bar really high. She helps motivate us through the hard times.”
According to Naughter, Sullivan embodies what many of today’s players want to be.
“I think of her as the heart of the program,” Naughter said. “She’s one of the few All-Americans in school history and she’s a teacher and a lot of the kids want to be teachers. She’s the dream for these kids.”