PICTURED ABOVE // Athletic Director Deb Surgi and senior Isabella Shadle as well as the rest of the Upper School Athletic Board (not pictured) discuss ideas for the future of the Hockaday Athletic Board during their second meeting of the 2018-2019 school year. Surgi makes sure to take copious notes that she will later be able to refer back to. Photo by Arushi Mukherjee
When junior Abby O’Brien was asked to pose in a photo with Deb Surgi, Hockaday’s new Director of Athletics, she muttered to herself, “But what if I’m not an athlete?” Upon hearing that comment, Surgi immediately stopped the photoshoot and left her office to confront the group of girls standing outside.
Who said they are not an athlete? Who said they are not an athlete?” Surgi asked in a forceful yet endearing voice. “There is an athlete inside all of us.”
Surgi’s initial reaction to this question epitomizes what she has accomplished at Hockaday in her two months here: putting athletics at the forefront of the school. Athletics is sometimes seen as the forgotten cornerstone. With minds focused on the rigorous classes that Hockaday offers, students often glance over the final cornerstone.
Since her first day on July 5, Surgi has proposed and implemented many new ideas to change this mindset. Senior and Athletic Board Chair Meredith Jones loves that Surgi wants to change so much in the athletic department.
“I think that everyone can already see this ‘we can do anything’ attitude from her,’” Jones said.
Before she came to Hockaday, Surgi served as the Director of Athletics at The Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania for 13 years; however, her journey in athletics began long before she stepped foot on the Hockaday campus.
Surgi originally worked as the Dean of Students at the Academy of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans and coached volleyball at Loyola University in New Orleans until 1996. When a friend of hers approached Surgi about being the Director of Athletics at Moorestown Friends School in Moorestown, New Jersey, she applied for the position. After several interviews, she got the job and became the first female Director of Athletics in a South Jersey, co-ed school.
After a total of 22 years of being the Director of Athletics first at the Moorestown Friends School and then The Baldwin School, Surgi decided to make the switch to Hockaday because she liked the challenge of changing the culture around athletics here on 11600 Welch Road.
“I was intrigued and excited by the challenge of reinvigorating a culture and giving students at Hockaday what they deserve in terms of athletic culture and athletic facilities,” Surgi said.
Surgi’s most noticeable change in athletic facilities thus far is the new coaches’ suite near the entrance of Penson Athletic Center. She wanted to establish better communication by having the coaches closer together. Surgi imagined the change when she was looking at the coaching offices. She proposed her renovation idea to Hockaday administration and collaborated with them as the renovations occurred. Before, the coaches with administrative responsibilities worked all over the athletic facilities; now, the coaches’ suite offers increased communication and a meeting place for students and coaches. Surgi even hosted a crew team meeting in her new office.
Since Surgi had not yet started her position at Hockaday while they were making the renovations, JT Coats, Hockaday’s Chief Financial Officer, and Ed Rys, Hockaday’s Director of Facilities, spearheaded the operation. Coats functioned as the project manager, working with the designers and construction crews to price the renovations and pulling in all personnel needed to complete it. However, she could not do this alone.
“It’s not just me,” Coats said. “It’s Mr. Rys; obviously, Coach Surgi was well involved. Coach Johnson played a big part in it, and Dr. Coleman ultimately is where the buck stops.”
Along with the creation of the coaches’ suite, Coats also decided to replace the tile and toilet partitions in the bathroom area of the Girl’s Locker Room because Coats had already planned this change before Surgi wanted to renovate. Coats plans when small renovations to the facilities will occur long before they happen in order to make sure Hockaday allocates enough funding for these measures.
While less apparent at first glance, another of Surgi’s changes will help Hockaday’s athletes: she has hired a sports turf management company to ensure that Hockaday’s fields are properly maintained. Hockaday recently sampled different lawn mowers to determine which one would be best for creating an even playing field and promoting growth. Hockaday is also replacing some of the old, wooden benches with metal bleachers, adding gravel to the bleacher areas, putting in awnings with an adorning Split-H and installing a media box with a video tower on the field hockey, soccer and lacrosse varsity fields.
Currently, Surgi is entertaining two bids for skinning the softball diamond, otherwise known as stripping away the grass infield and replacing it with dirt. Besides the Episcopal School of Dallas, Hockaday is currently the only school in SPC North Zone that plays on a grass infield. Collegiate softball teams even compete on a dirt infield.
“When I talk about giving the student-athletes what they deserve and what they need in terms of best practice, [the new dirt infield] is one of those things,” Surgi said.
Not all of Surgi’s changes involved the sports facilities, though. Surgi, in collaboration with the communications department, is creating a new Hockaday Athletics website that displays team schedules, a list of alumnae playing collegiate sports and the newly-created team stores, where anyone can purchase Hockaday athletic gear all year long.
“We just want to make it easy for people to spread the spirit,” Surgi said.
Surgi also promoted Jennifer Johnson to Assistant Director of Athletics, announced to the Hockaday community Aug. 23. Johnson, who has worked at Hockaday for 16 years coaching field hockey, lacrosse and soccer in Middle and Upper School and coordinating Upper School Physical Education, now works closely with Surgi to implement her many new projects and schedule games for every sports team. She will also continue to be the Department Chair for Health and P.E.
“[Johnson’s promotion] is the best move, I think, for the program,” Surgi said.
Johnson loves Surgi’s passion, enthusiasm and education-based athletics philosophy. With both Surgi and Johnson, the athletic department will likely make even more changes.
“Big things are in store for athletics, and it’s a really exciting time,” Johnson said.
Students also appreciate the changes that Surgi has made since she became the Director of Athletics. Jones sees Surgi’s “can do” attitude as a major addition to the athletic program. Jones has met twice with Surgi to talk about how to increase school spirit around athletics. While her ideas are still in the planning stage, Jones wants to institute a “Player of the Week” and theme nights at games to draw in all ages of student fans, not just Upper School students.
“I really like Surgi’s motto, ‘If you can think it, we can plan it, ’” Jones said. “She really wants to get stuff done and make change right away.”
Story by Kate Woodhouse
Photo by Arushi Mukherjee