They are next-door neighbors in the Mitchell Center, and so it's not unusual for PJ Soteriades and Mike Caravana to pop into each other's offices from time to time to catch up or compare notes. "When we talk," says Soteriades, "it's usually just, 'How's it going, what are your challenges right now?'" Whatever the topic, if it's even remotely related to coaching, Soteriades values her colleague's input: "He's someone who is incredibly passionate about his athletes."
There's no shortage of mutual respect between Soteriades, the Big Red field hockey coach since 2000, and Caravana, her counterpart in men's lacrosse. That respect exemplifies what Denison expects from all its coaches: leadership and teamwork that go well beyond the confines of any particular team. So, when Soteriades found out that she was pregnant with her second child and would be unable to coach in the fall of 2016, her next-door neighbor, a seemingly unlikely solution, actually made perfect sense. Whatever Caravana lacked in field hockey knowledge, he made up for in acumen, experience, and a commitment to excellence.
"We really work against taking a silo approach to success, so whether it's recruiting strategy, mentoring student-athletes, or just navigating the career of coaching, we share a lot," says Nan Carney-DeBord '80, vice president and director of Big Red athletics. "In talking to PJ, I said, 'Let's think in other boxes—not just outside the box, but really, in other boxes.' That led us to think about some coaches in our department who we thought might be able to help."
The brainstorming session led directly to the desk of Caravana, who fit the bill for a number of reasons. First and foremost: his experience. He has guided Big Red lacrosse for more than 20 seasons, and in the spring of 2016, he became the program's all-time leader with 256 victories. More important than the milestone, the program advanced to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in eight seasons, won the conference championship and finished the year ranked third in the US Lacrosse top-20 poll after going 18-2.
Caravana's experience at Denison also includes rare versatility: He began his Denison tenure coaching both lacrosse and men's soccer, leading the latter program for seven seasons. For Caravana, handling double duty is nothing new.
But perhaps his most valuable asset is his curiosity—a relentless desire to understand more about his profession, and to challenge himself to do and learn more. "I've always had an interest in women's sports, and in learning from the better coaches on that side," Caravana says. "In my experience, growing professionally is less about the X's and O's and more about methodology: about communication skills, how to teach, how people learn. Nan has created an environment where we're trying to be much more collaborative, work in a much more cohesive way, and at the same time not just be successful athletically, but to help people grow holistically. That's Denison's goal."
Indeed, Carney-DeBord says that one of Caravana's greatest attributes is "understanding you can't live in a bubble and be successful." She adds, "He's a master at leading student-athletes, and he's at his best when the situation is at its most challenging."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Caravana led the Big Red field hockey team to a 14-5 season in Soteriades' absence.
He was grateful to have Kelly Blackhurst, a three-time Division III All-American as a player at Skidmore, as the assistant coach, which "made it a lot easier for me to land on my feet." And Soteriades herself was a resource for Caravana. "He wanted to know everything—what the challenges were with this year's team, what my players are like, their backgrounds, you name it," she says. "He was interested in knowing everything there is to know."
Soteriades' openness to helping ease Caravana's transition speaks to another, less obvious challenge: that of temporarily letting go of a program she built and led for 16 seasons. So much of successful coaching is about setting and maintaining expectations, something that's not easy when another coach is in the driver's seat. But with the support of the athletic department and supreme confidence in her peer's ability, Soteriades was optimistic about the situation. "I knew he would respect the athletes, and I knew he would push them," she says.
As for his lack of familiarity with the sport itself, this was less of an issue than many might expect. Caravana relied heavily on Soteriades and Blackhurst—and on the players, the ones who ultimately executed on the field.
For Soteriades, whose son was born in August, the temporary transition was ever so slightly bittersweet because "I knew I would learn a lot from Mike, and I was bummed I wouldn't be able to experience that on a daily basis." She takes solace in knowing that her program was in highly competent hands, and in the knowledge that she and Caravana are still neighbors, just a short walk down the hall from a chance to compare notes. As for Caravana, he says, "It's PJ's program. I was just the caretaker."
By Ryan Jones