Content Courtesy of Dan Fappiano, Zip06.com
BRANFORD, Conn. - For 41 years, Cathy McGuirk served as the head coach of Branford High School field hockey team, mentoring hundreds of female athletes along the way. Now, many of those athletes are supporting McGuirk as she faces the biggest challenge of her life.
Earlier this year, McGuirk was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
Coached by McGuirk (alongside her husband John for the majority of her four decades), the Hornets amassed 558 victories and won 10 state championships. McGuirk was always an active coach who was constantly on the field with her athletes during Branford’s practices.
Former Hornets’ goalie Jenna Limone, who is now an assistant coach with Branford field hockey, will always have fond memories about how McGuirk was such a caring coach. When she found out that McGuirk has ALS, Limone and fellow program alum Nancy Kendrick, who is now president of Branford Booster Club, wanted to do something to show support for McGuirk.
Limone and Kendrick organized the MilesForMcGuirk virtual 5K fundraiser that took place on October 25.
“I knew she had some health stuff going on, but I didn’t know about the severity of it. Once we heard about her diagnosis, we wanted to make sure that she felt support from her own community that she worked and coached in for so long,” Limone said. “We wanted to do something that was active. If you know Mrs. McGuirk, you know she is literally one of the most active people. Mr. McGuirk is still rolling up socks so she can practice her tennis swing. We wanted to do something that coincides with the person she is.”
There were 401 people who participated in the MilesForMcGuirk 5K. Field hockey teams from several neighboring high schools—including Morgan, Hand, Hamden, Lyman Hall, Cheshire, North Branford, Sacred Heart Academy, Old Saybrook, and Westbrook—took part in the event, along with the teams at Branford High School and Walsh Intermediate School. The Branford and East Haven girls’ soccer teams also participated, as did the girls’ lacrosse squad from Staples High School in Westport. Even one team from out of state—the Woodson Cavaliers field hockey team from Fairfax, Virginia, which is coached by one of McGuirk’s former players Diane Russell—participated in the fundraiser.
To date, the MilesForMcGuirk 5K has helped raised more than $15,000 that will be donated to the ALS charities of Cathy and John McGuirk’s choice. While the 5K was virtual, Limone and the athletes on the Hornets’ field hockey team decided that they were going to do their run at Foote Memorial Park in Branford. In addition to the current players, there were 15 Branford field hockey alumni, including some people who played for the team as long as several decades ago, who showed their support by attending the event.
Early in the day, Cathy McGuirk came to Foote Park and spoke to Branford’s current and former players about the many memories she made during her 41 years as the Hornets’ head coach. She also talked to them about how special the local field hockey community is. McGuirk’s words were touching for Limone and everyone else who was in attendance that day.
“It was really cool to see alumni there. It was really special for the girls to get a glimpse of that. Most of them haven’t been a part of the McGuirk’s era. It resonated with them. It was like when worlds collide. I was overwhelmed with happiness,” said Limone, a 2012 Branford graduate. “I got to meet a lot of alumni from 20 years before me and heard their stories. The best part was the girls got to see this, and it allowed them to see the Branford field hockey tradition more. That’s really what the McGuirks did. They created a community like that.”
When McGuirk was on the Hornets’ sidelines, she coached many games against Kitty Palmer, the head coach of the field hockey team at Guilford High School. Palmer, who has been Guilford’s coach for 39 years, knew that her team always needed to bring its very best effort any time that she faced McGuirk.
While Branford and Guilford may have been rivals on the field, McGuirk and Palmer created a bond by coaching their respective field hockey squads for so long.
Much like Limone, when Palmer learned that McGuirk has ALS, she knew that she needed to do something to lend support to the legendary coach.
Each year, the Guilford field hockey team participates in the New Haven Road Race. When this year’s race was canceled, Palmer came up with a way for Guilford to continue its tradition, while helping McGuirk in the process.
The team ran 3.1 miles around the town of Guilford in groups of 10, raising money for ALS research along the way. After some convincing from her husband John, McGuirk met up with Guilford’s athletes and Coach Palmer following that run.
“She was so dedicated to the sport. No matter who they were playing, there was always great sportsmanship by her players and her. It was what you wanted your team to be like,” Palmer said of McGuirk. “How successful, yet how gracious, she coached her team. She meant a lot to every team she played. She was always very generous. If she wasn’t playing in something, she would wish you well. There isn’t a coach in Connecticut who doesn’t know she is.”
When McGuirk retired as Branford’s head coach in 2018, Pete Frye, who had coached the Walsh Intermediate School field hockey team, became the head coach of the Hornets.
Frye knew that it would be impossible to replicate the type of success that the McGuirks had at Branford, but he still wanted to do right by them by continuing to put quality teams on the field.
The two senior captains on this year’s team—Andrea Amarante and Alisa Gueco—played for the Hornets during McGuirk’s final season in 2017. Coach Frye was thankful that everyone on the current squad got to meet McGuirk at Foote Park and learn more about the culture of Branford field hockey.
“When it comes to Cathy, legend doesn’t even do it justice. We were all devastated by her diagnosis. We were looking for a way to express gratitude for all the things she has done. We wanted to just say, ‘We care about you, and you’re in our prayers,” said Frye. “Winning games is great, but there are so many more things that are more important. We’re all in this together, and it speaks volumes. The outpouring of support has been unbelievable.”
Limone has known McGuirk since she was five years old. When she started at Branford High School, Limone was uncertain about what fall sport she wanted to play. After meeting with McGuirk, Limone made her decision and, by her sophomore year, she was the Hornets’ starting goalie, a role that she held until she graduated.
Limone shared her story with numerous people at the MilesForMcGuirk fundraiser, including Stephanie Smelser and Nicole Sturgess, who were captains of the 1993 team and the sponsors of Branford’s entry into the 5K. Limone knows that McGuirk not only helped Branford field hockey establish itself as a dynasty, she also helped foster the growth of female sports in the town, the state, and beyond.
“Mrs. McGuirk pushed for 41 years. If you think back 41 years ago, women’s sport was really emerging at that point. When she was in high school, female sports weren’t the way they are today,” said Limone said. “Mrs. McGuirk really helped break some of those glass ceilings. She took true athletes and brought them to the next level. It showed everybody else that they’re here to compete. She built a really big community based off of that.”
Limone continues to keep in contact with the McGuirks. In addition to telling stories about how he’s rolling up socks for Cathy to work on her tennis swing, John also told Limone that Cathy has been teaching the fellow residents of her nursing home how to hold umbrella like a field hockey stick.
For Limone and many others in the local sports world, the MilesForMcGuirk fundraiser was a way to give back to someone who gave Branford field hockey everything she had both on and off the field for 41 years.
“She instilled a culture that encompasses pride. You should feel proud to be able to walk on that field, and it’s because of people like Coach McGuirk,” Limone said. “She made it possible for female athletes to be able to compete at a competitive level, win championships, and be part of a legitimate team. Her impact is reaching all over the country. It isn’t just in Connecticut. That sense of pride is never going to go away.”
In addition to the 558 victories and 10 state titles, the Branford field hockey team won 17 regular-season conference championships, including 10 in the Southern Connecticut Conference, with Cathy McGuirk as its head coach. McGuirk has been named the Connecticut Field Hockey Association Coach of the Year four times and was also selected as the SCC Coach of the Year in 2016, when the Hornets won the SCC Tournament.
McGuirk is a member of the Connecticut Field Hockey Hall of Fame, the Connecticut High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame, the Branford Education Hall of Fame, the Branford Sports Hall of Fame, the Southern Connecticut State University Hall of Fame, and the New Agenda Sports Hall of Fame. She was also selected as the National Field Hockey Coach of the Year in 1994.
Donations toward ALS research on behalf of MilesForMcGuirk can be made on Venmo @miles-for-mcguirk or via check mailed to BHS Field Hockey, Nancy Kendrick, 90 Indian Neck Road, Branford CT, 06405.