Fortuitous mother-daughter combination looks to lead LCC to field hockey success

Midfielder Mia DiGiulio is LCC's top scorer.
Midfielder Mia DiGiulio is LCC’s top scorer.
(Ken Grosse)

When Kari DiGiulio made the decision to take over the vacant position as head coach of her school’s field hockey team in early 2020, the concept made perfect sense. The athletic director at La Costa Canyon High School for the past decade, DiGiulio had been one of the sport’s local standouts as both a player and coach.

She won two CIF field hockey championships (plus one in softball) as a part of the powerhouse Serra (now Canyon Hills) dynasty, garnering first team All-CIF accolades as a senior. She went on to become a two-time All-Mid-American Conference selection at Central Michigan and, following graduation, DiGiulio’s star rapidly rose in the prep coaching world as she guided Torrey Pines to three CIF titles and two runner-up finishes.

The just turned 45-year-old left the coaching profession in 2011 to accept charge of the relatively new, but already accomplished LCC athletic department. She has kept the Mavericks humming along among the top all-around high school programs in the section while earning across-the-board respect for her administrative acumen. Time permitting, DiGiulio, who also handles teaching duties, had been a semi-regular assistant with the LCC field hockey team but the lure of being a head coach again never totally disappeared.

Maverick Head Coach Kari DiGiulio
Maverick Head Coach Kari DiGiulio
(Ken Grosse)

“I have a very rewarding job as athletic director at LCC,” said DiGiulio, “You get to be a part of so many programs and cultures on campus. It’s a whirlwind of a position but I’ve always thrived in that kind of environment.

“I loved coaching though and, to be honest, it is my all-time favorite gig. I just love the chance to work so directly with young, student-athletes. It’s the place where I feel most impactful.”

Being an assistant coach just wasn’t the same. “It’s hard to be an assistant after you’ve been a head coach,” she admitted. “I’m kind of a takeover person and it’s a hard role to adapt to. I’m not sure I did it very well.”

It took the intersection of sport, family (she and her husband, John, have four children) and professional life, plus a healthy dose of good timing to land DiGiulio back on the sidelines in the top spot.

Following the 2019 season, her third at LCC, then Head Coach Casey Wollbrinck chose to resign her post and move to Hawaii. At the same time, a talented freshman field hockey player—DiGiulio’s oldest child, Mia—was preparing to start her Maverick career. While a lot of factors came into play, the elder DiGiulio did not hesitate to identify the most important in her decision-making process.

“My daughter,” she said, when asked what made her decide to return to the head coaching ranks. “I always thought it would be amazing to coach her if she loved the sport.

Senior forward Lillian Mahoney
Senior forward Lillian Mahoney
(Ken Grosse)

“I was lucky enough to be coached by my dad in as a high school softball player. I had such a great relationship with him because he was teaching on campus and also my coach. I wanted my daughter to, hopefully, experience that same kind of relationship.

“I feel so lucky that Mia really loves the sport and I have this opportunity.”

The journey hasn’t been completely smooth. While the unpredictable confluence of vacancy occurring and daughter arriving was a case of impeccable timing, the first two years of Mia DiGiulio’s tenure at LCC were chaotic.

Her 2020-21 freshman year was turned upside down by the Covid-19 pandemic. The expected fall season was canceled and ultimately replaced by a seven-game slate played out in late spring of 2021 with no post-season competition included. DiGiulio was a first team all-league pick in the abbreviated playing session.

Junior Mia DiGiulio
Junior Mia DiGiulio
(Ken Grosse)

The fall 2021 campaign lived up to the promise of being more along traditional lines but it happened with no Mia in the lineup for LCC. During the summer club season, the soon-to-be 17-year-old center midfielder tore her ACL and was forced to miss the entire ’21 schedule. Without DiGiulio, the Mavericks scrapped their way through a 10-13 regular season but made a spirited run in the CIF Division I Playoffs to finish second.

“We had a hard time finding our way in the beginning of the 202l season,” recalls Kari DiGiulio. “There were some bumps—my own mom was diagnosed with leukemia in October which was a huge hurdle for us as a family.

“But our team did an amazing job supporting each other and me. They just kept pecking away and by the time the year was over, I think they proved to themselves that they were a worthy program.”

Now a junior, Mia DiGiulio was back at full strength for the ’22 season but just four regulars returned from the CIF runner-up unit, meaning it was really a “new” team with more than handful of young players. There was a modest core to build on but the learning curve would be testing.

Heading the veteran group, senior Lillian Mahoney, is a dominant stick handler, three-time all-league choice and the squad’s second-leading goal scorer with 12. Her connectivity with DiGiulio, who’s piled up 19 goals and 12 assists, is a driving force for the Mavs’ offense. Sisters Reese and Rory Silcox, along with slick senior distributor Ella Monero fill out the midfield. Senior, four-sport athlete Tyra Soleil Ringdahl anchors the back line along with sophomore goalie Lily Jasper.

Sporting a 10-10 record with one regular season contest remaining, their coach has been pleased with the progress that’s been made. “We have a lot of young girls on our roster and sometimes it’s hard to get a group like that to believe,” said (Kari) DiGiulio. “I think this team’s just starting to click, starting to realize how good they are and can be—trusting each other and me as their coach.”

La Costa Canyon has four CIF D-1 titles on its resume (the last in 2007) and reached the Open Division semi-final in 2016. Just past mid-season, it appeared that this year’s Mavericks might be playing well enough to slide into the bottom half of the eight-team CIF Open Division bracket. But a rough, four-game winless stretch dictated a return to the Division I field for playoff hockey

The Mavericks ended that skid with an encouraging 7-1 victory at Rancho Buena Vista last Tuesday, Oct. 25. They are now focused on getting healthy and returning to the CIF Division I championship game. To (Kari) DiGiulio, how they play is much more important than where they play in this post-season.

“It’s not always about the Open Championship,” she said. “I look at success in any given season by realizing a team’s strengths and seeing what you can do with them.

“Honestly, I look at the strength of this team as the pride they have and how they conduct themselves on and off the field—the respect they have for each other and each other’s talents.”

The CIF Field Hockey Playoffs start Tuesday, Nov. 8 and LCC will host all three divisions of this year’s CIF Championship finals, Saturday, Nov. 12.

With the CIF Playoffs looming, Kari and Mia DiGiulio to time recently to talk about their unique circumstances. Among other things, the elder DiGiulio shared thoughts on making her crazy schedule work and how her approach to coaching is different now than earlier in her career. Meanwhile, her daughter describes what it’s like to have her mother as a coach and her feelings about the remainder of the season.

Q—Kari, you and your husband, John, have four active children, from Mia on down to second grader Joey—with your multi-faceted role as a teacher, administrator and coach at LCC, how do you balance it all?

Kari DiGiulio
Kari DiGiulio
(Ken Grosse)

KARI—It takes a lot of effort to make it happen and definitely gets a little nutty sometimes with all the movement, shifting of schedules and that sort of thing.

Luckily for all of us, my husband (also a teacher at LCC) is very involved. He’s the reason I’m able to do what I love and still make the family dynamic work. I think we’ve all gotten used to the chaos.

Q—Is there a difference in the coaching style of Kari DiGiulio now vs. what it was 20 years ago?

KARI—I don’t think so. The basics are the same. You’re trying to get a team to work together and once you do that, everything just flows.

Every kid responds differently and, as a coach, your job is to find out how to push each kid in different ways. What motivates one kid is different from another

I still have high expectations of my players and still think I’m vocal and intense. My players know what to expect from me and see how they benefit from high expectations—not only as athletes, but as human beings. Everything we do on the field translates off the field.

I’ve learned to shrug a few things off here or there, which may come from being a parent.

Q—Knowing you have a young team and are playing a very difficult schedule, what do you look for from your team when they’re facing an opponent that’s maybe more experienced, more talented?

KARI—When we play teams that present those types of challenges, I want our team to make sure they don’t give up and play hard until the end of the game, whether the score is 1-0 or 6-0. That’s all you can ask and I think we’ve gotten that from our players.

We have a lot of solid athletes on our roster that can play hard in different positions, run you down and give some people headaches. Games where we haven’t won, we’ve still been able to frustrate better teams because we’re going to fight back all the time. In those games, there are moments of success that give players hope and incentive. I haven’t seen us down in the dumps after a tough game. We’ve got a lot of pride and resilience.

Q—Mia, what is it like having your mother as the team’s head coach? Are there pros and cons?

MIA—Being able to play for her is so special and unique, I think, for both of us. Sharing our bond over the sport together is something I’ll never take for granted. She pushes me and knows how to get the best out of me. It’s so much fun to work alongside her.

That’s definitely the “pro” part of it. I’m not sure there are any cons. We don’t really fight but every mother and daughter can get into it sometimes. When we do it’s just her being my mom and me being her daughter. There are moments when she can be hard on me but it’s because she knows what I’m capable of and wants to make sure I know that too.

Q—You’re getting noticed and recruited by some Division I college teams now. How did you get started in field hockey and how did it become your sport of choice?

MIA—I began playing in sixth grade, starting out by just going to some club sessions here and there. I went to San Elijo Middle School but they didn’t have a team so I played at nearby Woodland Park in sixth grade and switched over to the team at Diegueno Middle School for seventh and eighth. The Diegueno team was being coached by some of the LCC players and it gave me a chance to meet some future teammates.

I had been playing soccer when I was younger and I think I first fell in love with field hockey because it was something different from soccer—kind of a break from a break so to speak. Seeing how much my mom loved it and being able to experience it with her was amazing. I also love the culture around field hockey, being around great people and representing the community.

Q—Any disappointment about potentially playing in the CIF Division I bracket instead of the Open Division?

MIA—I think at the start of any year, that’s everyone’s goal—playing in the Open Division. That level would be fun to play against so that part of it’s a bummer, but there’s still so much good competition in Division I. We’re going to focus on where we are and do as well as we can there.

Honestly, at the start of this year, we were really concentrating on just building our team, incorporating a lot of new players and getting them ready to play at the varsity level. It’s been a challenging year and we’ve faced a lot of sickness and injuries. That’s just part of the process that all teams face and how you handle those things goes a long way towards determining the level success you’ll have.

Bottom line, our goal is to just finish off strong and be proud of how we play—work hard, every practice day-in and day-out, push each other and continue our growth into the post-season. Hopefully, that will allow us to win a CIF Championship.