Schoennagel Takes Helm as Suns Coach

Vicky Schoennagel has worn many hats during her time with the Sacramento Australian Football Club.

On the field, she’s been a consistent sparkplug defender and two time Lady Suns Nationals MVP, notched an additional 40-plus games in the SacAFL  leagues, and represented her country with the Liberty at the 2014 AFL International Cup.  She’s also umpired matches locally, regionally, and nationally as a certified member of the USAFL Umpires Association.

As a clubwoman, the club from the Californian capital has known fewer more hardworking and committed to the growth of the game than she.  With leadership roles within the Lady Suns all the way up to club president, she is one of many reasons why Aussie Rules has progressed as far as it has in the California capital.

Now, Schoennagel transitions into her newest, and perhaps most challenging role yet: head coach of the Sacramento Suns men’s team for the 2018 season.

Her appointment succeeds that of club co-founder Matt Bishop, who retired after Nationals last season after guiding the team as player-coach through its first nine USAFL campaigns.  Her appointment also makes her the second woman to be the head coach of a USAFL men’s team, joining Nafla Poff of the Wisconsin Wombats.

“I raised my hand to coach for the Suns because there's no doubt that I will be more than 100% committed to the role and do all I can to give the Suns the coach then need/deserve,” Schoennagel told USAFL.com.  “The Suns need a coach to do the work behind the scenes, to be at every game, develop game plans, build a leadership group, lose sleep over the starting line-up, etc.  I have full access to Matty and his past training and game plans.  I would not have raised my hand without his support from afar. 

“It will not be easy, but I am aiming to do my very best at picking this role up with all the history and knowledge he left.”

The Connecticut native, who turned 36 last week, assumes the helm of a team who is trying to find its footing regionally and nationally.  Following their 2014 Division III National Championship, the Suns fell to Quebec in the 2015 Div-2 decider, but has gone 1-5 at that level at the last two national carnivals.  Last season, they came within two points of a three-peat as Western Division 2 premiers; a hard-fought loss to Minnesota gave Seattle the title. 

That said, they have been a fixture in the top ten teams of the league poll over the past three seasons, and are built around the American talent that they have recruited.  Saleh Tyebjee, an all-world defender with the USA Revolution, was the Lady Suns’ coach in the formative years of the women’s team, and coached Schonnagel during his stint.

Schoennagel is not a stranger to the Suns men’s team; in addition to her extensive role with the SacAFL co-ed league, she has spent a copious amount around the men’s team as team runner, water runner, and umpire.  “I'm inspired by their intensity,” she says, “but they don't intimidate me.  I'll never forget running water for them when we won the Division III title. I also learned the game from the men.  The early years of my time as a Lady Sun were spent in co-ed practices.”

Her familiarity with the men’s squad, and the respect from which she has earned, will keep her in good stead in this, her first dedicated coaching role.  This is a new experience, but one with which she has some previous time in, if only brief.  She stood in for Tyebjee in the 2013 Nationals when he was off playing, and guided the Lady Suns to their first Nationals win over New York.  “I think I had been playing for two years at this point, she remembers.  “Saleh gave me the game plan probably 30 minutes before the game, and I executed it.  I still remember the game plan.  It was simple, but it worked.

But Schoenagel’s lack of experience is mitigated by her personal drive and passion for the game.  “I understand that half the battle in footy leadership is being prepared, confident, and knowledgeable; for practice, with game plans, even just knowing all the rules of the game.  The leadership/captain role developed my skills in guiding practices and game days.  It took a while, but I've learned that you can be a player who shows up and goes with the flow, or you can become a player who creates the environment during practice/games.”

She also knows that tools for success as a coach doesn’t just include knowing what drills to run in training or how to best compete against their opponent on the day, but also knowing each player’s capability and how to get the most out of them as footballers:

“I learned to appreciate the benefits that come with learning about each player as an individual.  As captain I saw my role on game day to get everyone ready to start strong.  I know that every player is individual, and that there's a significant advantage to cracking the code for each of them. I've also developed a loud, directional voice as part of the Lady Suns defense.  All of this should set me up for a transition from player to coaching.”

Following someone with the likes of Bishop’s reputation is a daunting prospect.  Schoennagel’s goal, to bring home a title to Sacramento, is one that is she knows well from her playing career.  But coaching is a horse of a different color, especially a team with whom she has no experience playing with.  The great frontier of what lies in front of her is, by her admission, the role’s biggest challenge.  All of that said, however, she balances the onus of progress on herself and her new charges.

“The Suns have been coached by Matty for 9 years, and I will be coming in lukewarm to their traditions and expectations.  There's always a "storming" phase for a new team.  Beyond that, it will be numbers and commitment from the players in this transition year; it can't just be me putting in the work, the Suns will have to choose to match my effort for real success.” 

Following a Hall-of-Fame contributor to American footy is something that carries a fair amount of weight.  However, it was Bishop himself who, along with Tyebjee, current Lady Suns coach Brad Anderson, and the rest of the organization, have given Vicky Schoennagel the support and confidence to take on the task.  And

“[I've] spent my footy career surrounded by Matty and Saleh, who have been very generous in their support of my development of footy in general - as a player, umpire, club president, and now Suns head coach.”

The coming weeks will be a learning process for everyone on the Suns team, players and coach alike.  It is a new era in more ways than one.  But the men who pull on the red and yellow jumpers this year will find themselves in the hands of a tested football person, one who is dedicated to this great game with the wanting to learn and grow and expand herself and the people around her.

And, win lose or draw, that’s all anyone can ask.

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