The word “coach” isn’t usually said at Mt. Hebron field hockey games or practices.
It’s not because the Vikings don’t have a coach, obviously, but rather what the players call their coach.
“J-momma … that’s what they call me,” said Jeannette Ireland with a laugh.
Ireland, who is in her 30th season coaching the Vikings, won her 300th game on Monday, Sept. 23, against Catonsville. Ireland’s players and fellow coaches, present and past, all agree the nickname “J-momma” perfectly exemplifies who she is.
“When I came in freshman year, the seniors told us to call her that, and we’ve kept that tradition going,” said senior midfielder Esha Shah. “She’s basically a second mom to all of us. She cares about us more as a person than as a player, and she really wants the best for us."
Ireland can’t remember who gave her the nickname or when it started. But she predicts it was within the last decade of her three-decade career.
“It’s fine; it’s very fine,” said Ireland about the nickname. “… It’s kind of cute.”
The maternal nickname doesn’t mean Ireland takes it easy on her players — in fact, quite the opposite. A coach doesn’t win more than 10 games a season for 30 years without high expectations of her players.
Her players and coaches described her coaching style as “intense,” “passionate” and “consistent.”
“She’s tough on us,” Shah said. “But at the end of the day, she really cares for us as a person and she wants the best for us. She wants us to get better every day and holds us to the highest standards.”
Leigh Miles remembers thinking Ireland was “so intense” when she played for her in the late 1990s.
Miles, who returned to Hebron after she finished college to be Ireland’s junior varsity coach 2004-2015 and in 2017, laughs when she recalls being reverently “intimidated” by Ireland.
“She had laser focus, and she’s still like that,” Miles said. “I remember being very intimidated by her as a player, and obviously I don’t feel that way now. She was so intense in practice and was out there to get the best out of us. We worked really hard.”
Ireland’s assistant coach for the last 13 years, Donna Schaaf, hopes the players on the team understand how “lucky” they are to have Ireland as their coach.
“She’s so inspirational, and she’s a phenomenal person on and off the field,” Schaaf said. “Coaches are often some of the most influential people in children’s lives, at all ages. She inspires them every day to be better than the day before.”
Long before she was “J-momma," though, Ireland was a three-sport athlete in high school and college. After graduating from Parkville High School, Ireland played field hockey, basketball and lacrosse in college at Towson and Goucher.
“You could play three sports in college back then,” Ireland said. “It was a long time ago.”
In Ireland’s senior season at Goucher, her lacrosse team played Johns Hopkins, which had just allowed women into the college and had new women’s sports programs. After the game, she talked to Hopkins’ coach, who also coached her club team. The coach “surprised” her when she requested Ireland be her assistant after graduation.
Coaching for Hopkins’ women’s lacrosse and field hockey teams, Ireland said, is where she “really learned how to coach.”
She coached at Hopkins for about 12 years until she started at Mt. Hebron in 1990. Ireland, who was inducted into the Greater Baltimore Chapter National Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 2009, continued coaching lacrosse for the Blue Jays until the program went Division I in 1999.
Her career at Mt. Hebron started with an innocuous bike ride.
“It’s a funny story how I got hired at Hebron," she said.
Ireland, who lives near the high school, rode her bike to Hebron in the summer of 1990 and saw a few girls practicing field hockey. She stopped to talk to them about the school, about field hockey and about themselves. “I didn’t think anything of it," Ireland said.
Later that summer, Ireland was coaching a Bob Scott lacrosse camp at Gilman when Suzanne DeHaan and another girl from Mt. Hebron came up to her during a break and asked her some questions.
“Do you live in Ellicott City?” DeHann asked.
“Did you ride your bike up to Mt. Hebron this summer?”
“We need a coach. Would you be willing to coach our team?”
Ireland said she would think about the request, but she just had her first child, Richard, and he was only a few months old.
“The next thing I know, I get a call from Mr. (Mark) Cates, who was the (athletic director) at the time,” Ireland said. “I said yes, and that’s how it all started.”
In her first season, she would put Richard on her back in a baby carrier to balance coaching and being a mother with a toddler. Thirty years later, Richard is a history teacher at Mt. Hebron, and his mom is still the field hockey coach.
“Now that Richard is a teacher there, it makes me giggle when I think about it,” Ireland said. “He was there when it all started.”
Ireland’s favorite memory from her first season was during an early season match against Liberty. The Vikings went 1-11 and scored four goals all year in the season before she took over, so Ireland said she focused on teaching just the “basic concepts.”
She set a goal about drawing penalty corners, and the Vikings’ first corner came against Liberty.
“When we drew our first corner, they just went crazy,” Ireland said. “They just screamed like we just won the state championship. It was so exciting to see that. We ended up going 7-5 that year.”
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It didn’t take long for Mt. Hebron to become one of the best field hockey programs in Howard County, the region and even the state in some years.
One of the strongest stretches for Hebron was 1996-99. The Vikings won their first county championship under Ireland in 1996 and appeared in two state title games in that period. While the Vikings didn’t lose much in those four years, Miles, who was a member of the varsity team from 1997-99, said in hindsight she is most impressed with Ireland’s ability to move on from losses.
“When I lost a game as a coach, I would be so upset. I would lose sleep over it. But she was so good whenever we lost a game at not letting it get to her and wiping the slate clean,” Miles said. “Her ability to lose so humbly and move on so quickly was amazing to me. I love that about her.”
Since 1990, Ireland’s Vikings have won six county titles, seven regional championships and appeared in five state title games. Hebron last appeared in a state championship in 2013. This season, the No. 8-ranked Vikings are 5-2 and tied for first in the county.
“I just always knew whenever we played a team Jeannette coached that it would be a great game,” said Wilde Lake head coach Ginger Kincaid, who coached 39 years at Glenelg before taking over the Wildecats in 2016. “We were always proud to be competitive against them. That was our barometer for how we’d do in a given year.”
Kincaid said she is “proud” of Ireland for achieving the 300-win milestone. She said Ireland is the epitome of what a coach should be.
“Jeannette is somebody who’s dedicated and someone who is not just passionate about the sport, but passionate about the kids and the community,” Kincaid said. “She brings to the field a bit of a momma feel, where she loves her players almost as much as she loves her own children.”