TAMPA — USF lacrosse coach Mindy McCord treated road trips like special occasions when she coached at Jacksonville.
She roamed the airport with players, giving in when they begged for Cinnabon or pretzel bites. She sat in the back of the bus, laughing and chatting with the team. She gathered players in hotel conference rooms, where they participated in activities like writing down their favorite things about their teammates.
Madison Sturgell, who played under McCord at Jacksonville from 2018-22, said the coach was like “a kid in a candy store” on the road.
“She created a fun atmosphere in times where we could just be sitting on our phones or catching up on homework or not being team-oriented,” Sturgell said. “She was really about that.”
Hired by USF in May 2022, McCord has brought her enthusiasm for growing lacrosse in Florida to Temple Terrace. She established high school and club teams in Jacksonville before leading the inaugural program at JU, where she went 240-118 and won nine conference championships from 2010-2022.
The Bulls don’t begin competition until the 2024-25 school year. McCord’s experience leading other inaugural programs taught her the importance of creating a culture off the field before focusing on players’ on-field development.
“If you were having an off day, you could always count on Coach to pull you aside and say, ‘What’s going on?’ ” Sturgell said. “ ‘You’re not your usual self, and I can tell.’ ”
McCord looks to six pillars as a coach: family, love, trust, lead, serve and faith.
She wants student-athletes to give back to their community, like when one of her Jacksonville teams “adopted” a young girl with brain cancer. McCord encouraged players to think about what spirituality meant to them, regardless of their faith. She ran Bible studies for Christian players at Jacksonville and sometimes attended church with players.
Former players now return to McCord and tell her they use some of her values in their marriages.
“That’s been (my) life breath — seeing these things you weren’t sure were going to work or how they were going to evolve, be part of who they are,” McCord said. “It sticks.”
McCord’s emphasis on culture has already paid off on the recruiting trail for USF.
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A Jacksonville native, Sofia Chepenik attended Jacksonville camps growing up and remembered McCord staying behind when campers wanted to spend extra time practicing. She could tell McCord and her husband, Paul (now an assistant coach at USF), really cared about their players.
Chepenik started her career at Clemson in 2022, where she ranked among the top freshmen in the ACC with 53 points. She entered the transfer portal, and the McCords reached out soon after –– not to speak about recruiting, Chepenik said, but about how she was doing. A couple days later, they asked her to visit USF.
Chepenik was recruited by top-10 programs. But the Bulls’ dedication to women’s sports, the ability to grow lacrosse in her home state and the McCords’ family-like atmosphere drew her to commit to USF.
“I was in tears when I left my visit because I felt so valued and believed in,” Chepenik said.
McCord has made waves on the recruiting trail beyond Chepenik’s commitment. The Bulls signed their inaugural class in November 2022, which features players from some of the country’s top club programs. The roster also includes seven transfers, several of whom earned all-conference honors at their previous schools.
Building the 2023-24 recruiting class has been among McCord’s favorite moments at USF. The group was recognized at a USF men’s basketball game last year, which she said was especially meaningful.
“You have nothing — just air, no people,” McCord said. “To be like, ‘Here they are!’ That’s a great memory.”
McCord has frequently spoken on behalf of USF Athletics over the past year, including at events like the grand opening of the indoor practice facility. She has built ties within the department, playing lacrosse games with women’s soccer and volleyball players in order to teach them about the sport.
Paul McCord has coached lacrosse with Mindy since the spring of 1999. This was amid coaching in the NFL — including a stint with the Baltimore Ravens, whom he worked for when they won Super Bowl 35 in Tampa in 2001.
He said McCord’s holistic approach to student-athletes sets her apart.
“I would call it the Mindy effect,” Paul McCord said. “She loves her players. It’s really not about the sport. That’s part of it, but it’s not solely about the sport. It’s about the lives of everyone she comes into contact with.”
The care extends to players well after graduation. Caroline Peterson, who played under McCord from 2018-22, was feeling anxious about deciding where to attend physician assistant school last month. She gave McCord a call, and they ended up speaking for two hours.
“She never gives you the answer because she’s teaching us to be adults and make our own decisions,” Peterson said. “But she probes and asks questions that lead you to the answer.”
USF’s first recruiting class moves on campus this week. As they ready to play in 2024-25, the program will compete against other schools in fall scrimmages and during exhibition games in the spring. They will also focus on team building and getting out in the community, McCord said.
Former Jacksonville players have touched base with incoming Bulls as well. Sturgell said she’s spoken about McCord and the team’s culture with commits ahead of their arrival on campus.
As McCord throws herself into her work at USF, her former Jacksonville players root for the program’s success from afar.
“Those girls that she will coach don’t realize yet, but they are literally the luckiest people in the world to have Coach McCord,” Peterson said. “She is a gem.”
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