Vonnie Gros ’57 picks up a dry erase coach’s board and begins to sketch out a field hockey formation. She’s done this thousands of times, and it comes naturally. It’s conjured from decades of experience—she is a composer writing music; a mathematician jotting down a formula.
Gros (pronounced GROW) is 88. She’s sharp. Nothing slips past her, and she’s quick with a joke. The coach is always a step ahead, constantly evaluating.
“I enjoyed bringing new things to the game,” Gros said. “Some people I played with didn’t always appreciate what I did because we were coached a certain way. When I watch [pick-up] games—the players make up their own game. I used to make up my own game.”
Sometimes the best coaches and players are like jazz musicians: They improvise. They keep opposing teams off balance by doing something unexpected, and when the opponent adjusts, they change it again. Perhaps that approach made others bristle, but that’s Vonnie. She’s against the grain. Fundamentally sound? Yes. Willing to draw up a back-of-the-napkin play to bewilder a defense? Absolutely.
Why play by the book when you can keep rewriting it?
She is a true pioneer of women’s athletics,
and she cleared a path for many after her…With each person like Vonnie, strength and courage are passed on to the next generation of advocates.
— Laura Moliken P’21
When Vonnie Gros came to Ursinus College in the mid-1950s, she embarked on one of the school’s most celebrated athletic careers. She was an All-American in field hockey and lacrosse, and a national champion as a player and coach. She played on the U.S. National Field Hockey Team for 13 years and then coached that team to its only Olympic medal in 1984.
Gros enjoyed a storied coaching career at West Chester University and also taught and coached at Ursinus. She is enshrined in the U.S. Field Hockey Hall of Fame, the Ursinus College Hall of Fame for Athletes, the West Chester University Athletics Hall of Fame, the Montgomery County Coaches Hall of Fame, the Chester County Sports Hall of Fame, and the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame.
“Vonnie believed that we should do what was necessary to be as competitive as possible, including changing style of play, navigating rule changes so they became an advantage, and playing on the best surface possible,” Ursinus Vice President for Health and Wellness Laura Moliken P’21 said. “The goal was always—and still is—to elevate the game to the next level. She wanted to compete and win, but she made darn sure her teams would go about it the right way. Top-level play and sportsmanship were key.”
Moliken can trace her own coaching lineage back to Gros. Before she guided national powerhouse Bear field hockey teams to Centennial Conference championships and a 2006 national title, she was a three-time national champion at Old Dominion University under the tutelage of renowned ODU coach and Ursinus alumna Beth Anders ’73, whom Gros coached on the U.S. National Team.
That coaching tree is a veritable who’s who of women who paved the way for the next generation of women athletes and coaches. At the very top, of course, is Eleanor Frost Snell, the legendary Ursinus coach who advocated for women’s sports decades before Title IX.
In a 2016 interview, the late Margery Watson ’52, one of Gros’s assistants on the U.S. National Team, said, “Ms. Snell produced coaches. That was our legacy.”
So, Snell coached Gros, who coached Anders, who coached Moliken and current Ursinus field hockey coach Janelle Benner.
But every story has a beginning, and long before halls of fame and Olympic games, Gros was a Palmyra High School (N.J.) student who wanted to play as many sports as possible. It might be considered serendipitous that at Palmyra, two of Gros’s teachers and coaches—both Ursinus graduates—were Snell disciples.
Mary Ann “Manny” Ballantyne Porter ’48 and Jane McWilliams Kennedy ’49 took Gros under their wings in high school—or was it the other way around?
“They coached softball,” Gros said. “Manny told me a funny story. She said she told Jane, ‘I don’t know much about softball.’ And Jane said, ‘We better ask Vonnie what to do!’”
Porter and Kennedy knew Gros was considering attending Beaver College (now Arcadia University) because of its physical education program and because she earned a scholarship to attend the school. But Gros’s mentors made their pitch.
“And that’s when I met Ms. Snell,” Gros said.
“She was from Nebraska. She was quiet. But she made it very clear that you had to play the right way, abide by the rules, and accept the officials’ calls,” Gros said. “Ms. Snell coached all sports and that really sunk in with me.”
Gros loved to study both domestic and international play in field hockey and share her thoughts with anyone who would listen. She was influenced by all other sports—including men’s sports.
“I had always heard, ‘We don’t play like the men,’” she said. “Well, I know that, but there are techniques you can learn by watching them and by watching all sports.”
Case in point: Gros had been trying to find an advantage for one of her West Chester University lacrosse players who would always seem out of position and a step behind while playing defense. To help her player, Gros turned to the gridiron.
“I was watching a football practice when the lightbulb went off,” Gros said. “I saw how the defensive backs used their hips. I thought that could easily be applied to lacrosse.”
Gros asked her player to make an adjustment using the technique of a football defensive back. The strategy paid dividends.
As a field hockey coach, Gros also began to adopt international strategies and styles of play.
“[A traditional formation] used to be 5-3-2-1,” Gros said. “Well, I had gone over to watch the British play and was thinking on the flight all the way home about how they took one player and moved her back. So, that’s what I did.”
Gros’s willingness to adopt new strategies and to innovate raised eyebrows at the time, she said, but it unlocked potential in her athletes and led to even more success.
“She was very unselfish and felt like our entire country needed to understand the game in the same way,” Moliken said. “There was an ‘American style,’ as she says. She wanted us to embrace that style, but also learn from other countries and then take those lessons and fit them into an American style of play.”
Next year marks the 40th anniversary of Gros’s bronze medal-winning U.S. Olympic field hockey team. She was also the coach of the 1980 team that boycotted the Moscow Olympics because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. That year was the first women’s Olympic field hockey competition, but the U.S. was one of five countries to pull out under protest. In 1984, the games took place in Los Angeles, where the Netherlands and West Germany won gold and silver medals, respectively, and Gros’s American squad earned the bronze.
“I wanted to coach national teams, but I never thought I’d get into the Olympics,” Gros said. “To get there, we had to make changes, and you could really learn from how other countries were playing and adapting their game. I think I also tried to do some things that were just instinct, even if they might have been out of place.”
Gros didn’t coach the U.S. National Team after the Olympics. Call it philosophical differences. She doesn’t have a medal because they were not handed out to coaches, but she has a jersey and other clothing, and some of the Olympic memorabilia used to adorn the trophy cases in the Floy Lewis Bakes Center at Ursinus. They’re now part of USA Field Hockey’s collection in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Ultimately, those aren’t all that important. Gros views her most significant contributions to the game through the lens of teaching and coaching, much like Snell inspired her to do.
“When we were picking the Olympic team, I had 30 players and only 16 were going to make it. I was asked to talk to the press, but I wouldn’t do it,” Gros said. “The players who didn’t make it—I was still obligated to them. I still owed them time. I owed time to talk to them as a group, and I told them that if they wanted to talk to me personally, I’d give them that time, too.”
That’s the coach in her. It’s a quality that was ingrained in her during her high school days in New Jersey playing for Manny Porter and Jane Kennedy, and at Ursinus under Eleanor Snell. It’s one that she has passed down to her own players-turned-coaches. Ursinus prides itself on a historic legacy in women’s athletics that, like Vonnie Gros, is anything but conventional. It’s progressive, transcendent, and trailblazing.
“She is a true pioneer of women’s athletics, and she cleared a path for many after her,” Moliken said. “There are others, of course, who also cleared paths, broke through barriers, and changed the perception of what women could do in athletics. With each person like Vonnie, strength and courage are passed on to the next generation of advocates.”
Gros’s name will forever be synonymous with Ursinus field hockey. Thanks to the generosity of Ursinus alumna and field hockey player Kara Raiguel ’94, the scoreboard at Eleanor Frost Snell Field now bears Gros’s name.
“I always felt Vonnie was invested in us, as a team and as individuals,” Raiguel said. “When I reflect back on our opportunity as student-athletes to play for an Olympic coach who came back to her alma mater, it makes me realize how lucky we were to have that experience. Her investment and passion in us as young women—and her time and devotion to the sports she loved—is something that has stayed with me for 30 years. I graduated as a much better athlete than when I arrived at Ursinus. Unfortunately, I never was able to watch her as a player, but as a coach, she left it all on the field.”
A formal dedication ceremony was held at homecoming on Saturday, October 28, to honor Gros’s legacy and she is now immortalized on the field named for her coach.
Some six weeks prior to the ceremony, Gros snaps a photo of her name on the scoreboard with her cell phone. She wants to capture it before all the pomp and circumstance. She runs her fingers over the smooth surface of a modern field hockey stick.
“A little different than what I played with,” she laughs.
She sits on the turf field and presses down on it. The wheels are turning.
“The ball really takes off on this,” she says.
At 88, she’s still looking for an advantage. No doubt she’s already found one.