Pictured: H-K got together for a group with coach Lauren Braren (sitting, front row) after defeating Valley Regional 11-9 for its first Shoreline Conference championship. Braren is one of just two women head coaches among the 97 boys varsity programs to have played this spring.

By Paul Augeri

Haddam-Killingworth’s boys lacrosse coach resigned just a day before the Cougars were to have their first official practice in advance of their first season in two years.

“An AD’s nightmare” is how athletic director Lynne Flint described the predicament. “It made us very nervous when this situation happened. It’s especially not easy to find lacrosse coaches.”

No one knew then that this was the starting point for what’s become a magical lacrosse season for the program and the coach Flint found to see it through, Lauren Braren.

Flint tapped into the network of the community’s tight-knit youth program with just one phone call to a parent “within an hour or two of losing our coach.” The recommendation: Braren, a former youth coach herself, a former college player, an architect who designs schools by day and the mother of two lacrosse-playing sons at the school who grew up in that same youth program.

“I would like to say this was more difficult than it was,” said Flint. “Lauren said, ‘I’ll call my work, let me move some things around.’ You know, it never happens that way. Once we got her certifications and all that stuff together, she was all in.”

How did the season turn out? Let’s see …

Already familiar with many H-K players, Braren and the kids hit it off right away. She had a strong support system of assistants. And she quickly discovered that coaching boys wasn’t going to be as tricky as she first believed.

“Lauren is a really solid parent and she played in college, but you still don’t know what the dynamic will be,” Flint said. “And with this year (the challenges of COVID), we really needed things to go smoothly.”

The Cougars won their first seven games, finished the regular season with 11 wins, beat North Branford in the semifinals and respected rival Valley Regional in the final for their first-ever Shoreline title.

Braren’s oldest on the team, senior midfielder Cal, went on to become the Shoreline Conference’s Player of the Year. Mom was voted Shoreline Coach of the Year. The Cougars won their first CIAC Class S tournament game on Tuesday, 10-9 over Tolland, and are 14-5 overall. Now they take aim at St. Joseph, an 8-7 upset winner over No. 1 New Fairfield, at home on Saturday with a trip to the state semifinals on the line.

“We keep saying the stars aligned for this season in so many ways,” said Braren.

“I couldn’t be happier with how the season went,” said Flint. “Just the role model that Lauren was for the team. Bringing her in completely changed the dynamic for them, and the communication as well because they worked so well together.”

It’s also not lost on Flint — as a woman in the male-dominated field of athletic department leadership – that Braren made such a seamless step not just as a woman coaching boys, but as a mother coaching her sons. Braren is the only woman coach among the 30 boys teams in Class S.

CIAC records show that of the 97 boys varsity programs that had a season in 2021, Braren and Carrie Feldman of Norwich Tech’s co-operative are the only two women head coaches.

“A female coach coaching a male sport is always a cool thing,” Flint said, “and we couldn’t have been under the direction of a better person, just a positive, strong leader for the team. And with Cal winning player of the year, it was a family affair. This was our first Shoreline championship in program history and something the program so needed.

“It’s really a shining spot in a really difficult year.”

Braren, who played in college at RPI, is a senior designer for the Hartford firm JCJ Architecture, where she’s worked for more than 20 years (fun fact: her firm designed H-K High School in the early 1970s). Her latest work challenge was an emergency project – Tolland needed a new elementary school after the one built in 1995 showed signs of irreparable crumbling.

“It was the fastest project we’ve ever done,” she said. The school will open this fall.

When she was first heard from Flint about coaching the team, Braren said she was “shocked.”

“This was the night before the kids were officially allowed to practice with sticks,” she said. “Lynne said, ‘Is there any chance you can help us?’ I know there are others in town who played lacrosse in college but are busy, and I said let me see what my company says. My work schedule can be very crazy. In this case, the pandemic helps because I don’t drive into work every day. I don’t have five projects going on at once.”

Braren credits a “real community effort” for the season coming together so well — Mike Civiello, the president of Haddam-Killingworth’s youth program; assistant coach John Wink, whose son Ryder is a senior on the varsity team; and Eric Brodeur of East Lyme, a goalkeeper for UConn. Braren found him after seeking help through the Shoreline Sharks, a summer lacrosse outfit in Niantic.

“I called them and asked if they had anyone who would help me,” Braren said. “They knew a kid, a UConn student who didn’t have a season who was looking for a coaching job. The kids really respected Eric from the moment they met him.

“I have a neighbor whose sons are on the team. We get writeups on the games. There are two moms of players who are photographers and they upload photos to Facebook. It’s extraordinary how this has all happened. It’s been so awesome.”

Truth be told, before Braren took that call from Flint, she was looking forward to being a spectator this season.

“I knew most of the boys on the team before I stepped on the field,” she said. “In youth every year you’re mixing with kids above and below (age groups). The program is so tight, we know all the kids. We want to know who’s going to (play) at the high school. So I know all their parents and they know me from coaching all these years.

“I thought (the last few years) would be for my boys to have their time in high school without mom on the sideline. All of the boys are definitely special. They’ve been very respectful and fun to be around, and they’ve never treated me like I was a mom. Both boys (Nolan is a sophomore) call me ‘mom.’ I tell them, ‘I’m not your mom here!’ Some habits are hard to break.”

Braren said no one’s ever questioned her capabilities as a woman coaching boys or whether she was the right fit for them.

“It’s not a thing,” she said,” and it’s important for the boys and the girls to see that. It’s something to prepare them for the working world that they’ll be in. Hopefully there’s no distinction. I love seeing these women coach in the NFL now. It’s awesome. I would love to see more women coaching boys in lacrosse.

“When I was walking off the field on Thursday (after the Shoreline final), I saw girls’ faces, and they knew I was Shoreline Coach of the Year and they were like, ‘what?’ You often see women as the assistant. I have to give the refs credit, they’ve never made the assumption looking at all three of us on staff (that one of her two assistant runs the team). They’ve always asked, ‘Who’s the head coach?’”

Flint now hopes that Braren remains that person.

“My only job now is how to beg Lauren’s boss to let her come back,” she said. “I’m going to have to work on that.”

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