Saturday, September 8, 2012

TYT Interview: Casey McCullion

Women's assistant coach Casey McCullion arrived at Penn State back in June to fill the open spot left on the staff when Mo Stroemel moved from assistant coach to his present role of director of hockey operations/video coach. She already has experience working with head coach Josh Brandwene, after spending two seasons on his staff with the Kingswood Oxford School girls hockey team from 2008-2010, before being elevated to head coach in 2010-2011. McCullion brings some much-needed goaltending expertise to the Nittany Lions - she was a four-year starter at Holy Cross from 2003-2007, and as a coach has helped three goaltenders receive invites to USA Hockey Select Player Development Camps.

The avid Philadelphia sports fan and recent recipient of a master's in elementary education from the University of Pennsylvania graciously agreed to answer a few questions this week, in spite of the hectic buildup to the inaugural NCAA season.

Thank You Terry: People like to ask Penn Staters what a Nittany Lion is, so I'll flip that around a little bit on you - what's a Wyvern (Kingswood Oxford's nickname)?

Casey McCullion: Also a pretty common question. A Wyvern is a mythical dragon creature with sort of a skeletal appearance. I was never able to figure out the true difference between Wyverns and regular dragons, but I was told Wyverns were both cooler and scarier. Either way, a pretty unique mascot.

TYT: What sorts of experiences, either playing at Holy Cross or coaching at Kingswood Oxford and Deerfield Academy (where McCullion coached there in 2007-2008) prepared you for this?

CM: I think the main thing that I’ve learned both from my playing and coaching days is that goalies are very often overlooked during practice time. It was always a frustration to me when I would have practices that I wasn’t getting shots, or even if I was, the coach never said a word to me. If any adjustments needed to be made, I was always sort of on my own to see them and make the changes. That’s not an easy thing for a person to do. As an assistant coach at both Deerfield and KO, I was always able to set time aside to work specifically with the goalies or evaluate them during drills. Admittedly, as a head coach, I was frustrated that I didn’t have time to do that as often. I think because of those experiences, I’m much more attentive to the goalies (although I will be working with all players here at Penn State). They will all get one on one work with me as well as instruction throughout practice just as any other player does.

TYT: Talk a little bit about each of your goalies this year and what we can expect from them.

CM: I’m really excited about working with all three of our goalies. I think with Nicole [Paniccia] we get someone who not only has collegiate experience, but has had success at this level in terms of her play. Her leadership among the group is certainly going to be really important this year. With Celine [Whitlinger] and Brooke [Meyer], we have two goalies who both come in with a lot of talent, energy and enthusiasm. From our first goalie session [on Wednesday], it is clear to me that all three of them are really hard workers and very coachable. They are all competitive, but at the same time, very supportive of one another. They really are going to set a great tone for the rest of the team.

TYT: I think Celine was on board before you, but were you involved in recruiting the other two at all?

CM: I came in at the end of the recruiting process for this year. I certainly have Josh and [fellow assistant] Gina [Kearns] to thank for their hard work in giving me such great goalies to work with.

Shenae Lundberg, a Deerfield Academy product and a McCullion protege, now plays collegiately at Union and won a gold medal at the 2011 U18 world championships. A McCullion-Lundberg reunion is scheduled for January 11th and 12th, when the Dutchwomen host PSU.

TYT: What do you look for in evaluating a goalie?

CM: Just like with players, there’s a number of things. Skating ability - balance, lateral movement, power, quickness - are all important. Certainly athleticism is an important piece. Technique can only take you so far in goaltending, sometimes you just have to rely on being a good athlete to make the save. How they play their angles, challenge shooters, see the puck are all important as well. I also like to see what a goalie’s focus is like. I will look to see what they are doing when the puck is at the other end of the ice to see if they are engaged in the game.

TYT: Other coaches have mentioned that while "current events" caused some hesitation with recruits and their families, that went away once Terry Pegula re-affirmed his donation [last November]. Has that been the case in your observation? Are there any doors closed, or any awkwardness that needs to be overcome with recruits?

CM: To be honest, it comes up very rarely in our recruiting process. Most questions we get are more out of curiosity than concern. Certainly the fact that Terry Pegula has made it clear that his gift and his support aren’t going anywhere makes answering those questions and alleviating those concerns much easier for us. Additionally, Penn State’s administration has made the commitment to support every varsity sport, including women's hockey. It also helps that all three of us (Coach Brandwene, Coach Kearns and I) believe in Penn State as an excellent academic institution where our athletes are going to get a top-rate education, join an incredibly supportive alumni group, and become contributing members of society in whatever field they chose. That’s the Penn State we talk to recruits about.

TYT: Given that you came on after all of "that" had been widely reported and discussed for six-plus months and that you had no previous affiliation with the school, was it a difficult decision on a personal level to make the move? Was Coach Brandwene a significant part of that decision?

CM: For me, it had very little to do with my decision. I have had a number of friends and family who have gone to Penn State so I knew that State College is a great place to live and that Penn State is a great school. I was never a Penn State football fan (until now) so I guess for me, the "fall" didn’t have as much of an impact personally. Although I came in after all of "that." I am glad that I get to be part of the moving forward part of things. This is a great institution that is going to be even better as we move into the future. It’s an amazing place to work and the notion of "One Team" isn’t just a catch phrase. It’s something that everyone around here really believes in.

TYT: Was there a point where you decided to focus on coaching over teaching for now? Was moving to Penn State it?

CM: I think the right opportunity had to present itself for me to give up teaching (in the classroom sense of things). I love being in the classroom, but right now public education is in a state of flux (especially in Philadelphia) and I think the next few years are going to bring on drastic changes. The opportunity to work with Coach Brandwene again and to be a part of something really big at Penn State was an opportunity that I just couldn’t pass up. This is an awesome time to be at a great institution. Who wouldn’t want to do that? Besides, I get to coach hockey for a living. There are a lot worse things I could be doing.

TYT: What happened to the Phillies this year?

CM: Well, I think the first problem was when they limited all off season acquisitions to overweight, past-their-prime, mediocre talent. The exception to that is Juan Pierre who is a skinny past-his-prime mediocre talent - though he admittedly had a solid year for us. Couple that with Howard’s injury, Chase Utley no longer having knees that function, and a lot of other guys whose playing careers are winding down, the writing was probably on the wall, but as Philadelphians we just didn’t want to see it. The Phils and the Eagles have a nice little inner-city rivalry though so hopefully the Eagles have a great year and that motivates the Phillies to go on a spending spree in the off season.

TYT: Upset about the NHL lockout or too busy to worry about it?

CM: Anything that keeps Claude Giroux off my TV screen is upsetting. I’m hopeful that they’ll get something done because I don’t think anyone but Gary Bettman really believes that a sport with an already small fan base, relative to other pro sports, can afford another year where they don’t play.

(Hey, I do what I can.)

TYT: Are there enough hours in the days between now and October 6th?

CM: It’s definitely a busy time of year for us. We’re excited and ready to get to work. The time is definitely going to fly by but when we step on the ice at Vermont, we’ll be ready to go.

TYT: Even before that, you're going to be riding 150 miles on a bike on September 29th and 30th [as part of Bike MS]. Which is, for contextual purposes, further than the distance between State College and Pittsburgh, and about 2/3 of the distance between State College and TYT headquarters in Ohio. Talk a little bit about why you signed up for such insanity.

CM: I began riding in 2009 with a group of people from my elementary school. My friend's dad was the captain of our team and my brother had been doing it for a few years. When I began, I didn’t have any particular connection to [multiple sclerosis], but it was important to people I knew so I thought it would be good to get involved.

In sort of a cruel twist of irony, right before my second year, I learned that a good friend from college had been diagnosed with MS. He and I often rode together to train for the ride (he used to ride to support his dad who also had it). Over the last two years, I’ve seen first-hand the effect that this awful disease has. This is my first year doing the two-day ride (most people only do one) and it’s definitely insane, but I know that my friend would give anything to be out there riding with me so it’s certainly the least I can do. Even beyond him, though, the whole weekend is a good reminder that there are still a lot of good people in this world. In addition to the 7000 riders, there are thousands of volunteers who spend the entire weekend doing nothing but peeling oranges for the riders who standing over a pothole to warn riders of the danger. It’s really an inspiring weekend.

Note: To help support McCullion's ride, click here.

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