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Playing With Heart: Impacting Lives for More Than 30 Years

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By Maria Evangelou, GoPSUsports.com student staff writer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Charlene Morett-Curtiss' name isn't one that goes without recognition in the sport of field hockey or let alone in Happy Valley.

It comes as no surprise that Morett-Curtiss is known across the country for her experience and success at the helm of the Nittany Lion program. In her 31st season, Morett-Curtiss is the longest-tenured field hockey coach in the Big Ten and sixth-longest tenured head coach at a single school in Division I field hockey.

A 1979 Penn State graduate, Morett-Curtiss continues to be one of Penn State's most decorated female student-athletes, as a dual All-American field hockey and lacrosse Nittany Lion. Owning a scoring record for 21 years, Morett-Curtiss broke records that set a foundation for female student-athletes to come. After Penn State, she moved on to compete at the international level. As a two-time Olympian she earned a bronze medal at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. That's just a small snapshot of her international career. 

Beyond the international experience and her Penn State legacy as a athlete, it's not her resume that stands out to those she has coached along the way. Rather, it's the ways in which she has impacted their lives, with so many Nittany Lions leaving with Penn State field hockey forever ingrained in their hearts.

"You can really see her passion," junior back Cori Conley said. "How much she cares is so visible. There's something really special about the way she coaches."

Justifiably, many honorable awards have been bestowed upon Morett-Curtiss across her tenure as head coach. She has been voted Mideast Region Coach of the Year seven times, Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year once and Big Ten Coach of the Year six times. Most recently, she was inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame.

"She has really taught us to have a passion for everything you do when you're striving for something," Conley said. "It's in her motto, 'play with heart.' If you have that love for what you're doing, constantly push for it no matter what."

Morett-Curtiss' coaching chapter began with some notable stops at Old Dominion, Boston College, and USA Field Hockey before returning to Happy Valley.

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"Coming back to Penn State was my dream job. It was an opportunity to recreate my experience as a student athlete at Penn State," Morett-Curtiss said. "One of my philosophies is to always maintain a sport-academic balance and to enjoy all Penn State has to offer as well. There has to be that healthiness of your mind and your body so that your body can handle the stress of the competition and training. I was very fortunate that my experience here was very balanced."

Her passion for the game and her teams is also reflected among her fellow assistants. Assistant coach Stuart Smith, who has been with the team for seven years, is fueled by Morett-Curtiss' coaching style and mentorship. 

"There's a reason I don't want to go anywhere else and it's because I think I have the best head coach in the country," Smith said. "She's such a role model for me, I really see Char as a family member. In Division I, you gravitate toward those head coaches who are going to push you on the field and who the girls are going to look up to. The girls take their goals and mentorship from here into their lives."

For Laura Gebhart, a 2015 Penn State field hockey All-American alumna, Morett-Curtiss was a mentor through all four years at Penn State, including two of which she served as team captain.

A member of the 2013-14 U.S. Women's National Team, Gehbart has since returned to her hometown in Lancaster county, where she coaches field hockey at a local high school on top of her full time job, keeping her love for the sport alive through her involvement in several USA Field Hockey national organizations and clinics.

"I came into a really core group of players and a really mature program that has done amazing things," Gebhart said. "Being with the Penn State field hockey team was one of the most impactful experiential learning experiences of my life."

Reflecting on the encouragement that Morett-Curtiss provided off the field, her commitment to helping student-athletes succeed is evident in a long list of Nittany Lions with academic honors and achievements.

"I considered Char, LB [Lisa Bervinchak-Love] and Stu [Smith] a part of my family. They've been with me through a lot of stuff through my life and they continue to be huge parts in my life," Gebhart said. "I think that's a huge component of Char's success, not just on the field but her relationship with her players. She keeps in touch with so many of her alumni and any time you're back, it's a given that there will be some meaningful quality time involved. You see in the end and on the alumni side, that she cares about everybody and loves us so much."

Gebhart was also on the team when Morett-Curtiss guided the Nittany Lions a coaching milestone, a 400th career win and a memorable moment the entire team. 

"That was a super powerful moment and I was also there when we got to celebrate our 50th Anniversary of Women in Sport," Gebhart said. "Char continues to be an advocate being on the forefront of women's collegiate sports. This program is the way it is because of her."

With more than 500 career wins, Morett-Curtiss ranks fifth all-time in Division I wins. She is one of only six Division I field hockey coaches with more than 400 wins and proudly spearheaded Penn State's transition to the Big Ten in 1992. Since becoming a member of the Big Ten, she guided her teams to the top of the conference record books in Big Ten Tournament titles, wins and regular season winning percentage.

For someone like Smith, much like Gebhart, he sees firsthand the lasting relationships that Morett-Curtiss creates with all of her former student-athletes.

"People come out just to see Char, it doesn't matter where we are on the road, it's pretty amazing," Smith said. "It's not only the kids who had 'rockstar' status that come back to see Char, it's the kids who really looked up to her for that extended period of time and the kinds of goals she instills in them as a player to take on life after field hockey."

For Heather (Atkinson) Gallagher (1991-93), it's a testament to the relationships that Morett-Curtiss maintains with her student-athletes long after they graduate. Gallagher was co-leader in assists on the 1993 squad the posted a 20-2 record, reaching the NCAA semifinals, a special experience for she and her teammates.

"I know now that I'm older, graduated and everything that Char was the one who told me to work hard, be dedicated and truly love the sport," Gallagher said. "My freshman year everything was so intimidating, but I grew so fond of her as time went on and I appreciated her impact on my field hockey career."

Gallagher's love of the sport didn't end at Penn State, as she continued to play long after her eligibility expired, eventually sharing the Penn State experience with her sons, who both became Nittany Lions. As family, they now make regular visits to Happy Valley for football games, field hockey games and of course, to visit Morett-Curtiss.

"She makes an effort to stay in touch and meet up after a game and it's always so great to see her," Gallagher said. "I have so many memories with the team because of her and still keep in touch with my teammates. She hasn't changed at all since I played, she's still the same, passionate coach. I'll will never forget our conditioning and drills and how hard we worked on and off the field."

Relationships have always been crucial to Morett-Curtiss, who says her best friends to date are the teammates she played with and the people she met through her athletic career as a Penn State student-athlete.

"We train hard every day, we have that competitive mentality and intensity of practice, but there always has to be that element of fun," Morett-Curtiss said. "You have to enjoy what you're doing and you have to enjoy who you're doing it with." 

For current Nittany Lions like Conley, Gini Bramley and Moira Putsch, Morett-Curtiss serves as both an encouraging and motivating figure on and off the field, while always reminding them of the importance of the close-knit bond between them.

"We were in the locker room at an away game and she came in and started dancing with us," Putsch said. "It was so funny because we don't usually see that side of her, but it's who she is. I'll never forget that."

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