Fall Ball Focus: It's All About Culture at Virginia Tech

PHOTO COURTESY OF VIRGINIA TECH ATHLETICS

Kristen Skiera was named the seventh head coach in Virginia Tech history on June 11.


Kristen Skiera will be the first to tell you that patience is not one of her strong suits. But throughout this past month, the Virginia Tech head women’s lacrosse coach has waited behind corners, around trees and even inside a large Riddell cardboard box positioned next to a training table.

Each time, she’s donned a scary Halloween mask, like Pennywise — the nightmare-inducing clown from Stephen King’s “It.” With her iPhone positioned out of sight and rolling, she then surprises her players.

Laughter usually ensues after the initial shock. It does so again when watching the players’ reactions in the video clips that Skiera posts on social media.

“They haven’t been as frequent as I’d like, which is probably just the nature of how busy we’ve been here,” Skiera said Tuesday afternoon. “But [we’re] slowly indoctrinating this crew into what it’s like to be on our team during the month of October.”

The tradition of “scares” dates back to Skiera’s time at Army, where she helped guide the program from club to varsity status in 2016 and reeled off four consecutive winning seasons from 2018-21. With most of her stuff in storage because of a move scheduled for next week, Skiera had to buy new masks at a local Halloween store to keep the tradition going. On a bus ride back from a day of scrimmages at Duke this past weekend, she was unanimously named “Most Likely to Prank Someone,” by the Virginia Tech team while playing a superlatives game.

“The funny piece is I am the jumpiest, most scareable person,” said Skiera.

On June 11, Skiera was named the seventh head coach in Virginia Tech history, almost a exactly a month after John Sung resigned on May 12 after five seasons. The opening presented an opportunity for Skiera to return to the ACC, where she was a two-time All-American at Duke and worked as an assistant on the Blue Devils’ staff for two seasons before taking the head job at Army. The vision for the program outlined by Virginia Tech athletic director Whit Babcock also aligned with everything she was looking for. It felt like a perfect fit.

Though Skiera hails from almost 300 miles north of Blacksburg in Ellicott City, Md., the new job at the university where banners across campus state “This is Home,” is in many ways a return to her roots. Growing up, Skiera thought that Blacksburg, specifically Lane Stadium, was the center of the universe based on the way her brother and father, both VT alums, spoke about it. The family spent several weekends every fall making the five-hour drive south to attend football games.

About a week before the Hokies’ first home football game this September, the Virginia Tech women’s lacrosse team gathered for its first team dinner. Afterward, Skiera had another surprise. Her daughter, Caslen, helped reveal she’d have a little sister in January.

“It does feel like life is coming full circle here,” Skiera said. “I have my second daughter due in January, and it’s really unique thinking that my daughters will be raised the same as I was, being really big Hokie fans and learning all the chants.”







Skiera noted the three priorities this fall for the team that now practices in the shadow of Lane Stadium: culture and character building, competitiveness and skill development.

Accountability and communication are the building blocks of the program. To help the tight-knit group use their bonds to push each other and prepare for the grind of an ACC slate, the team is split into Maroon and Orange squads for various drills and competitions that they’ll keep throughout their time at Virginia Tech. Besides a way to ratchet up the intensity on any ground ball drill, the two sides compete in dodgeball matches, chin-up challenges and Friday sprint heats. Skiera and the coaching staff, which she filled out with associate head coach Shannon Gilroy, who worked with her the past five seasons at Army, and Virginia Tech alum Mary Claire Byrne, keep a running tally on the whiteboard in the locker room.

An official scoreboard is in the works.

“Fall ball can be long, so we’ve tried to infuse competitiveness in a fun environment where they actually enjoy competing but also get results out of it,” Skiera said. “That's something that we've really tried to do in a creative way.”

Virginia Tech gained valuable experience against outside competition this fall with a series of scrimmages at Virginia, Johns Hopkins, James Madison and Duke. Skiera had to pull up her team’s schedule to refresh her memory since they’d played so many games. While she knows most coaches say their teams are young and inexperienced, the Hokies fit that description, especially compared to their ACC peers.

Despite losing the program’s career goals leader Paige Petty, who will play her fifth year at new ACC foe Pittsburgh, last year’s points leader Sarah Lubnow (23 goals, 29 assists) returns for a final run. Whitney Liebler (14 goals, seven assists), who made the 2021 ACC All-Freshman team, and Florida senior transfer Hannah Mardiney, the USA Today 2018 National Player of the Year at Notre Dame Prep in Maryland, have also stood out with their craftiness on the offensive end.

Defensively, senior Jordan Tilley, another Notre Dame Prep alum, started all 16 games in 2021 while registering 17 caused turnovers. Although the Hokies’ roster only features two goalies —  fifth-year senior Morgan Berman, who started all 18 games in 2019, and sophomore Lilly Kannapell — their consistency makes up for the lack of depth.

“They’re total studs and have really played well all fall, which has enabled everybody else on the field to rise to the occasion,” Skiera said. “I feel like what I find myself saying a lot is that as a staff and as a team, we have a lot of work to be done, but every day I get excited about how coachable this team is and how much improvement we’re making in our time together. We’re so lucky that the team is just an unbelievable group of young women. They’ve made it really fun.”

As if to underscore that point, Gilroy crept into Skiera’s office around 2:30 p.m. while she was on the phone to grab one of her masks.

“Luckily,” Skiera said, “the month isn’t over yet.”

VIRGINIA TECH AT A GLANCE

Virginia Tech will face Jacksonville and James Madison in its first two games. The full schedule has yet to be announced. The Hokies have yet to beat JMU in program history, and Skiera cited it as priority aligning with Babcock’s vision to become the best team in the state of Virginia ... Skiera called her scare on sophomore midfielder Emma Monte “hands down my favorite scare ever” ... The VT coaching staff dressed up as the cast of “Ted Lasso” at the team’s first annual costume contest ... Virginia Tech went 1-9 in ACC play last season. Paige Petty scored her 200th goal in its lone conference win, a 20-15 victory over Virginia ... Virginia Tech has rotated about 13 different players through the midfield. Skiera described the group that Gilroy specifically works with as “really athletic and broad.” ... “We’re still trying to figure out who can grasp both sides of the ball,” she said ... Skiera has enjoyed returning to the recruiting grounds of her hometown area in Maryland.

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