Tell me how you came to SHA?
My two older sisters had gone to Assumption High School, and my sister Dee Dee went to SHA. I knew what a great basketball team SHA had, and in grade school, I paid attention to what was happening there. At the time, Title IX was becoming a big thing in athletics, and the media had covered a lot of the state basketball tournament and the team. I just knew I wanted to go and play basketball at Sacred Heart.
In that era, you took the placement exam where you intended to go to school and you showed up for registration that August. When I came in August, Bunny Daugherty (AD at the time) was checking us out as we were buying books. My mom said to her, “Donna is going to be a big basketball player for you!” Bunny kind of laughed, and little did I know that my older sister Dee Dee, had also been telling Bunny the same thing in gym class! I was mad at my mom for saying something to Bunny, and I didn’t talk to her the entire drive home. We of course laugh about that today.
Who have been some of the big influences in your life?
I have known a lot of great people throughout my years at SHA. First and foremost my parents because they always believed in me. I was always included in anything my dad did, going to the race track, playing gin rummy, or golfing with his friends, As an athlete, Bunny for sure was a big influence and my assistant coach Suzie Sigler was really instrumental, as well. She helped Bunny coach everything, and we still go out and play golf together. I’ve had so many people at Sacred Heart who have looked out for me. Sister Louise Marie Willenbrink hired me to come back and work at SHA; Sister Judith, Beverly McAuliffe, The Colonel, Betsy Ferch, all have been so good to me throughout the years. I coached Betsy Cowan Ferch (’96) and Carrie Wentzel (’97) as a player, and then to see them return to SHA as administrators has just been awesome. I am so proud of them! Plus, I had many great players that made me look good as a coach! It is just a great place to be, here at SHA. Obviously, I could not do the job without the support of my husband Rick, he has been my rock. He has always believed in me, helped out at Sacred Heart, always in the background but someone I could always count on when I started and that is still true today.
What have you witnessed as being some of the most exciting evolutions in women’s athletics, since you returned to SHA?
Our facilities. Our campus updates and Dr. Crabtree’s vision for how it could evolve have been huge. So many have invested in our facilities, from the turf field with lights, to the softball & Brescia fields and our tennis courts. I am so proud of the facility upgrades that have been made since I’ve been at SHA. We have made it like a college campus and that does attract a lot of student athletes to our school. I am the basketball coach, but my philosophy has always been to support every coach at SHA and help provide what they need to be successful. All of our athletic programs and our coaching staff matter, and I try to follow through by being visible and attending as many events as possible. I want to be there for all of our players and coaches. The biggest thing is to let the student athletes, coaches and parents know that I care. I show that passion for my school by caring and supporting.
Do you have a proudest moment as an athletic director, or are there many?
As you look around our gym, look up at our banners and see our success, that is just a really cool feeling in general. I never take it for granted. Obviously, winning the state basketball tournament three years in a row was amazing. But to see the athletes that have come through go on to play at the college level or even beyond is so rewarding. I am not finished though, I have more that I want to accomplish!
At the end of the day, I am just so thankful that I get to work with such wonderful families, and people that support one another at a level that is so inspiring. Moms have always been at the forefront of supporting their daughters at SHA, but I have been so impressed with the dads that have stepped up in big ways over the past several years. Their involvement has been hugely important in advancing women’s athletics.
What drives you today?
There are definitely things that we can do to continue to get better. When I first started, we didn’t have soccer, lacrosse, bowling, dance team, archery. Now we have one of the premier soccer & lacrosse programs in the state! Sports are not the end all be all, of course, but I do believe they help develop the whole person. I love getting to see where these women go in their careers and in life. Now I am at the point where girls that I coached now have daughters that are coming through and playing for us. I knew those families when they were players and reconnecting with them is so special as their daughters come through SHA as students and athletes. It is a privilege to play for Sacred Heart, the traditions in athletics that we have are important. But, we have to strive to keep getting better.
Is there any particular recognition you’ve received that has exceptional meaning to you?
There are two. First, getting inducted into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame; they put a plaque up in Freedom Hall, and my name is featured on the rolling screen at the Yum! Center. Being recognized at the state level is so special. The second recognition I treasure was receiving the Francesconi Award from Sacred Heart Schools. As much I have been fortunate to accomplish in athletics in general, to be recognized by my peers and this community has meant such a great deal to me. It is less about records, it was about impact campus-wide.
How do you help students today balance so much with the distractions of social media and the pressures they face as students and athletes?
First and foremost, I support 65 coaches. So, my dealings are mainly with them, and I cannot tell you how proud I am of them. When we played our first game of the season this year (soccer) on the turf field, I had so many people – parents and students - come up to me and say “thank you” because they were grateful to actually be playing this year. Normalcy is so important. Social media has its influence, of course, but the game hasn’t changed. Getting to play with your team is holds great meaning and I think that normalcy has really helped these kids. We talk to them of course about being aware of social media, etc. but I really give so much credit to our coaches and the support that they lend to our girls.
What are some of the ways that you stay connected with your classmates/friends/colleagues/students from SHA?
I write notes all the time. I try to stay current with what is happening with people, and I work to recognize special or important moments in their lives. I am always so happy when I run into a former player or student at SHA and I remember their name to say “hi” – my memory isn’t quite what it used to be! Ultimately, I am proud to represent Sacred Heart. My feeling is, “why would anyone choose any place other than Sacred Heart?”, because I believe so strongly in our school and in our mission. In everything I do, I try to be cognizant of representing SHA whether I’m playing golf with other alumnae or other ways I’m in contact with the community and people connected to Sacred Heart. I truly want everyone I come in contact with to be the best they can be, and I feel like women in particular, we need to do a better job of supporting of one another and our success. Sacred Heart has given my daughters and daughter-in-law, all of my children and my family so much. It’s such a special place.
What is it like having your grandchildren here on campus?
(Donna has two granddaughters – Campbell and Eleanor – currently attending Sacred Heart Preschool.)
Having them here has been so cool! I always knew what a special campus this was, but now I have so much more appreciation for the inner workings of the schools and the outstanding leadership at ALL of our campus schools (SHA, Sacred Heart Model School, Sacred Heart Preschool & Sacred Heart School for the Arts). Lisa Houghlin does a phenomenal job with the Preschool and I can speak to that firsthand. To see the preschoolers go out and use the facilities on campus, I just love seeing that.
The campus has changed so much since I returned and having had the road built through our campus just really connected the schools and facilities in a way that simply did not exist beforehand. It positively changed the perspective of our campus, and so many great partnerships have come to be as a result of that simple enhancement to the campus.
If it were not for Sacred Heart Academy, I…
It’s so funny, because you know, I just always saw myself here, doing what I am doing at SHA. This is just a passion of mine. I always believed in myself and was surrounded by people who believed in me. Honestly, I am not all that surprised by our success, because it has come through hard work and the people that I’ve been able to surround myself with in terms of coaches and players. We have some awesome coaches here and without their dedication and influence on the kids, I would be nothing.
I don’t know what my life would have looked like if I hadn’t come back. I explored professional golf as a career, but it was too lonely. I’ve been able to truly have it all – a great job, happiness, a family – I hope that I am showing these girls that, yes you can have it all. You do not have to settle for something, you can aspire to be whoever you want to be.
I have had people ask me when I am going to retire, but I really feel like each day is the first day. I have a real passion for what I do here and I love it. To talk to kids and get them out of their comfort zone, to push them to try something that they wouldn’t normally try is so important and it helps them see their own potential. Especially with our athletes, it’s really important that they explore activities beyond sports and we work with our coaches to help with that, too. The camaraderie among our coaching staff and how we can all work together is so important.
As a coach and athletic director, I try to be that person that I would want someone to be for my daughters. Each coach & player is different, and you’ve got to be able to identify that but ultimately, it’s about relationships and showing them that you care. They will play hard for you and will respond to you and that’s what I would want for my own kids. I think having Eleanor and Campbell around too, students see how much I care about them and in turn, they care about them too.
The Core Values at Sacred Heart Schools are Community, Leadership, Service and Reverence. Is there one in particular that stands out to you?
Leadership is obviously a huge piece of what we are working to instill in our students and faculty, and it’s long been a part of our mission statement. But to me in the athletics capacity, community is huge. These families are trusting us to educate and coach their daughters. I try to get to know parents & develop those relationships, and carry those beyond the girls time at SHA.
Obviously, watching my kids attend SHA and go through the athletics program was great. Admittedly, it can be difficult to have your kids come through your program, because they’ve got to earn everything when others may think they been given everything. I also had the opportunity to coach my daughter-in-law Elizabeth Campbell. I tell my players I only had 1 son Michael and he made the right choice and married a Valkyrie. It was so special to share a lot of great memories while they were here. I am just blessed to get to do what I do, with the support that I have.
I recall having a moment early on in my career when an administrator challenged me by suggesting that some staff at SHA had a perception that I did a lot of golfing instead of being at school working on the program. That became a huge motivator for me because I knew I had to prove myself. We went on that year to earn 6 KHSAA state championship titles and another three runner-up positions. It goes to show that sometimes you have to make your own breaks and push ahead in spite of things.
Thank you, Donna, for sharing your time with us and for your commitment to this beautiful Sacred Heart Academy community. We are grateful for your leadership, tenacity and HEART!