At the turn of the century, Stonehill College was well-known for its academics and its bucolic setting. Located in Easton, MA, a visit to the college was bound to attract any prospective student.
But for a student-athlete, Stonehill wouldn't necessarily draw you to their programs or facilities.
In the new millennium, the college has undergone an athletics makeover: new facilities for soccer, field hockey, football, lacrosse and track & field; an expansion of sports offerings that now number 20 varsity teams as well as 10 club teams; and a regular spot in national NCAA rankings in Division II across several sports.
Known for their historically strong men's basketball program, Stonehill faced a cross-roads in the late '90's with respect to some of the non-traditional or "Olympic" sports as they're called now. Should Cross Country be cut? Track & Field?
Enter Karen Boen, an elite runner who got word from her brother-in-law that the college was looking for someone to coach the cross country team on a part-basis. That was 1998; or dozens of coach-of-the-year-awards and many championships ago.
Boen's once fledgling running program is now home to one of the strongest collections of teams in the Northeast-10 Conference. As coach of the women's and men's Cross Country and Indoor and Outdoor Track & Field teams, she's put her mark on the Stonehill harriers, jumpers and throwers. All 88 of them.
"When we first started getting successful, some of my guys would take a ribbing from their friends for being coached by a girl," said Boen. "But our Cross Country teams have had a lot of success. Like any organization, you have to surround yourself with good people."
The woman who hired her, Paula Sullivan, is in her 35th year at Stonehill as women's basketball coach and now Vice-President for Intercollegiate Athletics. She sees Boen's guiding hand every day.
"Karen is extremely bright, extremely competitive, extremely motivated," said Sullivan. "And truly, she's one of the nicest people I've ever met in my life. She is, without a doubt, the best coach in our conference and she does it the right way. From her student-athletes she demands excellence in the classroom, that they compete and that they be good citizens."
Those teams that were once considered for disbanding are now thriving under Boen's energy, leadership and direction. Her duties include overseeing six teams, both women and men, their schedules, budgets, travel and a bunch of field events in track & field for which she has little or no knowledge.
What started as a part-time gig coaching women's Cross Country, has evolved into a full-time, year-round investment of her skills and talents.
"I started with a $2,500 contract to coach just the women's cross country team," Boen laughed. "By 2000, we placed a couple of girls in the NCAA nationals. I was asked then to coach the men's team and that's when it became a full time job for me.
"We have 88 student-athletes (on all 6 teams) and we don't have an offseason. We don't have time to play catch-up. You have to stay organized and ahead of things. I'm sitting here today doing my schedules and budgets for the fall and we have a meeting tomorrow to go over all of the weaknesses that we can correct for our Track and Field teams."
A New Englander through-and-through, Boen instills those practical New England values through her straightforward demeanor. She understands family and community and tells her prospective student-athletes' parents the same message.
"I always tell parents that I'm going to take good care of your kid," Boen said. "Their kids know that when they make our team that they become like an athletic family. Here, you get the type of kid who wants to feel part of something."
Beyond that team concept of family and support, Boen stresses a bigger picture to her student-athletes and asks them to think their team as a community, a collective that is much stronger than its individual parts. One such example followed a tragic loss of one of her freshman runners.
"One of our freshman runners lost a sibling and I sent out an email to the team about where and when a memorial service would be held," she recalled. "Seventy-seven of our team members showed up to support their teammate. That's what makes us different. Not that other teams wouldn't do that, but it meant so much to all of them. The team members pitched in and picked up some catering for the family…"
She paused to think for a moment and then finished the story, reflecting on the care shown for a relatively unknown team member. And for a woman constantly on the move, her pause brings great impact.
"… and later that kid's father came to me, broke down, and then said, 'You told us our child would be a part of the Stonehill family, and now I know what you're talking about.' That epitomizes what we try to be."
Sounds like 1998 was that right place-right time-right person moment for Stonehill athletics and Karen Boen; and all of those student-athletes who have competed for her, and for each other.