Maybe it was the perfect storm that Tricia Melfy stumbled upon track and field’s most grueling contest, the heptathlon. The seven-event feat is known for pushing athletes to their limit – something the first-year Fort Lewis College volleyball coach knows about.
Melfy has overcome the odds to succeed at Fort Lewis because of an unconquerable drive, a demand for excellence and a passion that has lifted the program – and her coaching career – to new heights.
For all the success Melfy has had in her athletic and coaching career, her path to Durango seems as unlikely as her personal story.
“I literally looked at my story like I could overcome anything, one event and one situation at a time,” Melfy said. “I don’t think I knew that back in the day going through foster, going from family to family, hardship to hardship, I clearly learned how to balance one event at a time. It was probably beneficial in the heptathlon, even though it’s like life helped me be better in the heptathlon. The heptathlon helped me understand life, and they were compatible to one another. I just think I’ve always had the mindset to handle it.”
‘Tricia the athlete’Melfy was training for her third Olympic Trials in the heptathlon in 1997. She had already made two Trials before, in 1992 and ’96. She was in the middle of running a 300-meter dash when she began to gradually slow down.
“I’ll never forget it ... I slowly came to a walk and I’m like, ‘I’m done,’” Melfy said. “I just can’t physically do this anymore, I’m done.’ So, I’ve decided, that’s it, my career is over. I went home that night, and from that first night on it probably took me six months to pull my head together because I couldn’t understand that I’m no longer Tricia the athlete. Now what am I? That was my rock bottom.”
Melfy thought her ultimate low would have come sooner, though. Her father left when she was 8, while her mother struggled to raise Melfy and her older sister. She grew up in New Jersey, but her family eventually moved to Upstate New York, where life would become complicated. She was in and out of foster care, stayed with seven families in four years and was homeless during her senior year of high school.
At 16, she moved across the country from the harsh winters of Upstate New York and New Jersey to sunny Arizona, where her athletic career flourished.
“Track was so stimulating because nobody could screw it up for me,” Melfy said. “The only person that was going to make me be good was me. Volleyball was fun, and it was a team game, but I had to learn. Being a foster kid and not having parents, I was kind of an angry kid back in the day, and track and volleyball gave me an outlet to be held accountable. My anger, my sadness, my loneliness and my emotion went out in track and field. But volleyball taught me how to get along with people with different personalities, styles and approaches. So, the combination of the two literally saved my life.”
Melfy, who described herself as “a lost human,” began to see hope. She tried the heptathlon for the first time late in her senior year of high school at a showcase event, where she broke a national high school record and NCAA Division I schools noticed and recruited her. She would go on to become a three-time collegiate All-American in the heptathlon, including twice at Arizona State, all while she played volleyball at Mesa Community College.
“I was so immersed and obsessed with being a number one athlete, like, I literally wanted to be in the Olympics,” Melfy said. “That’s all I knew. I don’t know that I was settled so much as I was compartmentalizing. I was inundated with sport; I didn’t take a second off. Then, sport ended, and that’s when reality hit.”
She quickly realized she couldn’t abandon the two sports that changed her life, and a former teammate at Mesa, Sharon Akin, helped convinced her to coach. Melfy’s coaching career began as the junior varsity and assistant head volleyball coach at Chaparral High School in Scottsdale, Arizona, alongside Akin. It was the first of five seasons they would coach together.
“We were so young, and even then, in her first coaching job, she was so passionate,” Akin said. “It was our coaching style to encourage and teach them because our team was inexperienced in the sense that we had to coach them through every single play. Tricia has always had a great connection with her players and, as a result, has always coached them so well.”
Melfy made her way up the coaching ladder. After more than 15 seasons at the high school and club level, she made her collegiate coaching debut in 2014 as a first assistant coach at Minot State, a Division II school in North Dakota. Her first collegiate head coaching job came in 2015 when she spent one season at the University of Minnesota-Morris, a Division III regional power. She made another stop at Phoenix College, a community college in Phoenix, for the 2016 and ’17 seasons before she was hired at Fort Lewis College in April.
New leader of the SkyhawksWhen Melfy took over full-time at FLC, she knew immediate changes had to be made to a program that was down in the dumps. The Skyhawks had not made the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Tournament since 2013. The most wins in conference under previous head coach Kelley Rifilato since 2014 was five.
“The number one thing that I observed when I got here was that they were just here to play volleyball,” Melfy said. “Their mindset was play. My mindset is win. So, it shocked the petutes out of them. It wasn’t a program that believed in winning, it wasn’t a program that believed in competing and it wasn’t a program that believed in preparing to compete, preparing to win.”
Melfy gave every player an 11-page handbook she wrote that outlined expectations, goals and a new program standard. When the team regrouped in August, in addition to a grueling pre-season workout plan that came from her track background, she introduced a mantra that would resonate with every player on the team for the season: “We will.” The phrase would be uttered at every critical point in a match, and it became the rallying cry for the program.
For all the energy and time spent remodeling the Skyhawks in the summer, it took half the season before it clicked. FLC went 1-9 to begin Melfy’s tenure. It was a bus ride home after they were swept by Regis University and Colorado Christian University in Denver and dropped to 4-11 on the season when Melfy spoke up and delivered the speech of the season.
“I’m like, ‘This trip cost us $3,000 and you played volleyball for a total of 2 hours, 6 minutes. We were on the road for three days and it cost us $3,000. That’s not what we’re here to do.’” Melfy said. “Before, it was OK to spend the time and money on the road, get swept and go home. But that’s not how I work, because we’re not going to get to the tournament that way.”
Her message resounded with everyone, and a rag-tag team, which consisted of six new faces, started to win.
FLC won its final five out of seven matches in the regular season and had a six-game home winning streak that including a five-set comeback victory against Colorado Mesa University. The win catapulted the Skyhawks into more than an upset-minded team, but a legitimate tournament contender that was willing to battle and scrap for every point.
“All of a sudden, we went from a team that our opponents in the RMAC literally wouldn’t bother scouting us or watching film on us to them being like, ‘Holy crap, Fort Lewis is a really tough opponent and they’re not backing down.’” said senior middle blocker Maddie LeBlanc. “As a senior who had been through the ups and downs of the past three seasons, this season was so unbelievably refreshing. We didn’t give in, and so much of that was because Melfy’s energy and attitude during matches, she was always so positive, and we fed off of that.”
More than a coachFLC Athletic Director Barney Hinkle saw Melfy’s fire right away.
“When we went through the hiring process last year, that’s exactly what we were hoping for,” Hinkle said. “We wanted somebody who was going to challenge them at their highest levels. And to do that, there was going to be a work ethic that was unprecedented and demanded from them. It’s not necessarily the easy part or even the most fun, but when you succeed, and you get to enjoy the benefits of your hard work, well, that’s the pay off.”
While the dream-like season came to a close against top-seeded Colorado School of Mines in a competitive four-set match in mid-November, the Skyhawks had proved to the rest of the conference how far they had come in just one season.
For other players, Melfy was so much more than just a coach: She was a figure who brought back something that was missing.
“This last season meant a lot,” said senior setter Kendra Swackenberg. “Melfy told me that she thinks I’m a very competitive person, and I think the last three years, I didn’t quite show that. It was really hard to show that and be competitive, feisty and want to win so badly when you go 2-16 in conference and finish at the bottom of the RMAC. Melfy restored my confidence and passion and reminded me of why I play college volleyball. She helped me fall in love with the game again.”
After all of Melfy’s trials and tribulations, she knows her passion for the sport will not fade and believes this is only the beginning at FLC.
“At the beginning of the season, I told this team I’m where I’m at because of where I was,” Melfy said. “If you don’t know where I came from, you might not understand my passion for how I go about this sport, because it means so much more than just winning. ... This past season was only the beginning for us. I think I can build up this program to not just being competitive, but being an elite team in conference. If you want it bad enough, you can do it and I think we’re on our way.”