More than 60 young women have played basketball for Coach McGraw at the University of Notre Dame and more than 20 have graduated with a degree from the Mendoza College of Business. We recently caught up with several and asked them to reminisce about Coach’s leadership style, practice sessions and the lessons learned from their experiences.
Beth Morgan Cunningham (’97) played for Coach McGraw from 1993-97
Through the recruiting process, Cunningham gained a real sense of McGraw’s personality and style. "She was up front, honest, and did things with the highest ethical standards," Cunningham recalls. "She never pressured me. I was being heavily recruited, so that was important to me."
And once she arrived on campus, Cunningham quickly learned more about her new coach—how competitive she was, how good she was at Xs and Os, how well-planned, organized and competitive her practices were.
Cunningham sums up her time at Notre Dame as the "best experience of my life," and shares that playing basketball for McGraw taught her "how to be at your best in the face of adversity and to always carry and approach things with class and integrity."
Currently, Cunningham is the head women’s basketball coach at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va.
Diondra Toney Whiteside (’89) played for Coach McGraw from 1987-89, having been recruited by McGraw’s predecessor in 1985
Whiteside remembers practices that were structured and efficient, and that McGraw relied on her assistant coaches’ strengths in making her final decisions.
To build team spirit, "McGraw frequently had team gatherings in her home and made us feel welcome. We played board games and got to know each other better," Whiteside says.
Following knee surgery her junior year, Whiteside developed a medical complication and was hospitalized. That experience left her fearful of getting hurt again. Although she didn’t share her fear with Coach McGraw, her actions conveyed a hesitation. McGraw gave her the confidence she needed. "Coach didn’t have a long discussion with me but she did express her confidence in me. Her words of encouragement during practice made me feel as though I could make a positive contribution to the team," Whiteside says.
Recalling her basketball experience at Notre Dame, Whiteside says that it left her "prepared for teamwork in business."
Whiteside is a revenue officer for the Internal Revenue Service and an adjunct accountancy professor at College of DuPage and at Kaplan University. Whiteside, her husband Michael, and their 10-year-old son, Brandon, live in Lombard, Ill.
Carey Poor Walley (’96) played for Coach McGraw from 1992-96
As a high school, multi-sport athlete, Walley needed to decide not only which college to attend, but which sport to play. "As soon as Notre Dame became an option, the story ended. I fell in love with the University, the players, and the coaching staff. It was the balance of being able to play for a great team and the ability to graduate with an education from an amazing university that sealed the deal," Walley says.
Walley recalls Coach McGraw’s intensity, the clear expectation she had and the unique relationship she developed with each of her players. "For me, I knew she expected me to be a leader and wouldn’t accept anything less. It took a little time for us to understand each other, but over the course of my career, we came to a very clear understanding," Walley says.
The women’s team often practiced with male students who had played basketball in high school, which helped the team "to prepare for teams like the University of Connecticut and Tennessee," she says.
Walley, who sums up her Notre Dame basketball career as "life changing," continues to draw on an experience from her freshman year. "Pre-season my freshman year, the women’s basketball team had one of the most difficult workouts of my life … Still to this day, when something seems too tough to physically complete, I look back to that day and remember what we accomplished. It reminds me that anything worth achieving is worth the work to get it," she says.
Today, Walley is the director of marketing and a member of the executive team at a leading decking manufacturer, TimberTech. She and her husband have two sons, ages 7 and 3, and live in Springboro, Ohio.
She plays basketball in an informal women’s basketball league once a week and is currently training for a sprint distance triathlon.
Karen Swanson Haan (’03) played for Coach McGraw from 1999-03
Haan describes Coach McGraw as a "very smart leader who recruits players who are a good fit for both the school and the basketball program. To complement her own outstanding leadership abilities, she surrounds herself with experienced and talented assistant coaches. She is very skilled at bringing the puzzle pieces together and motivating everyone involved to achieve new heights."
"Coach McGraw would implement offenses and defenses that were particularly well suited to the strengths of her players. Everyone was expected to fulfill their role in the overall scheme during both practices and games," Haan adds.
Haan shares that "Coach McGraw … taught me that, through hard work and perseverance, absolutely anything is possible. We are capable of amazing things if we simply work hard at them and believe in ourselves."
Summing up the experience of playing basketball for Coach McGraw at Notre Dame, Haan says "I still pinch myself sometimes."
Haan is an attorney with the law firm of Baker Hostetler in Cleveland, Ohio. She and husband Justin live in Avon, Ohio.
Amanda L Tsipis (’08) played for Coach McGraw from 2004-08
Tsipis attended the Notre Dame High Intensity Basketball Camp the summer between her junior and senior year of high school. Following the camp, Tsipis approached Coach McGraw to inquire about the process to become a walk-on. "[Coach] told me that if I was accepted into Notre Dame, I would have a spot on the team without having to try out. As soon as I received my acceptance letter, I talked to Coach and graciously accepted the offer to join the team. It turned out to be the experience of a lifetime," Tsipis says.
Tsipis recalls efficient, timed and focused practices with very few breaks. "Coach demanded a sense of urgency, 100 percent effort, discipline and constant communication from each player every minute of practice. There were several times that I felt our team knew the other teams’ plays just as well, if not better, than their own team did," she shares.
In fostering team spirit, Coach spearheaded everything from team competitions to the team wearing green nail polish. "Coach exemplifies what it means to represent Notre Dame Women’s Basketball and be part of the Notre Dame family," Tsipis says.
Describing a particular experience that has continued to affect her, Tsipis says, "Being on time is late. My freshman year, I almost missed the bus to our first road game (I was in class, to my benefit), but I was always at least 15 minutes early to every practice or meeting from then on. We still laugh about it to this day, but I have realized that being punctual is such an important trait to have in every aspect of life. Thanks, Coach. I am often overwhelmed by how amazingly blessed I am," she adds.
Tsipis is currently a financial analyst in the public finance group within J.P. Morgan.
Sherri Orlosky Haigh (’94) played for Coach McGraw from 1990-94
In recalling her time as a member of the women’s basketball team, Haigh says "Coach McGraw is a coach who demands perfection. She has incredible basketball knowledge and pushes all her players beyond what they think they can achieve. Game preparation was always so detailed. She embodies the ‘PLAY LIKE A CHAMPION’ motto so dear to our Notre Dame hearts."
Currently, Haigh is a self-employed CPA raising five children, Anna (9), Teresa (7), Patrick (5), Danny (3), and Mary (5 months) with her husband, P. Joe Haigh (’95). Ever the basketball enthusiast, she coaches the third grade girl’s basketball team at St. Michael’s Catholic School in Loretto, Pa.
Sheila McMillen Keller (’99) played for Coach McGraw from 1995-99
Following the seventh grade, Keller attended summer basketball camp at Notre Dame. At the conclusion of the camp, Coach McGraw spoke with her and her parents about starting the recruiting process when she entered her freshman year of high school.
Keller describes McGraw’s on-court leadership style as "intense and demanding, yet calm at the same time. Off the court, Coach McGraw encouraged us to be students and enjoy what college had to offer," Keller added.
To build team spirit, sometimes Coach would engage the team in a game of wiffle ball at the beginning of practice to break up the monotony of the season. "Little things like that helped us stay together as a team and keep things light," Keller noted.
Recalling a particular experience that she carried away from Notre Dame, Keller echoed Amanda Tsipis’ words: "Coach McGraw always emphasized promptness. If you were late to the team bus, the bus left without you and you had to find your own way to the gym, practice, etc. This lesson continues to be part of my life. To this day I have a dream (nightmare?) that I’m late to practice or I’m not prepared! Promptness and preparation are key components of Coach McGraw’s makeup," Keller says.
Keller notes that her Notre Dame basketball experience was "life-molding, life-altering and remarkable!"
Keller recently received a master’s degree in education and likes to shoot baskets in her driveway, still finding it very therapeutic. She and her husband live in Carmel, Ind., with their golden retriever, Indy, and are expecting twins this summer.
Mollie Peirick-Busam (’98) played for Coach McGraw from 1994-98
Peirick-Busam committed to play for Notre Dame on her official visit to campus.
She attributes the success of the women’s basketball program to the high expectations Coach McGraw had for each player. "I think she really worked hard on finding what motivated each player. A pat on the back might work for one player while some tough love might motivate another player more. I experienced that Coach genuinely cared for every player, and also tried hard to do what is best for the team," she says.
Practices ran the gamut. "One practice could be a ‘mental challenge’, where if we made mistakes, there would be consequences. These were not fun practices, but they made us better as a team ... then we may have a practice where we played wiffle ball as a warm-up and it was a little more relaxed. I thought the balance was very good," she recalls.
Coach McGraw "would challenge us at practice. It sometimes was like the team vs. Coach, and that pulled us together and built team camaraderie and team spirit," Peirick-Busam says.
She describes Coach McGraw as having a great sense of humor and high expectations. "She had a way of making us work hard and want to be better," she says.
Zeroing in on a particular experience from her time at Notre Dame proved difficult for Peirick-Busam. "I wouldn’t change ONE thing about my basketball experience at Notre Dame. I think every player will express that they had some great times and some challenging times while playing. Coach is and was a great teacher and gave me the opportunity of a lifetime to play at Notre Dame and I am forever grateful for the opportunity, for her teachings, and now for her friendship," she says.
Peirick-Busam and fellow women’s basketball alumna, Letitia McGuff (’95) have started a training service called Impact Basketball Academy. www.impactbballacademy.com
She is married to Matt Busam (ND ’97), who was a practice player on the team. They live in Cincinnati, Ohio, with their two boys, Drew (6) and JJ (3), and infant daughter, Annie.
Susie Atchinson Lohman (’95) played for Coach McGraw from 1992-93
Lohman credits Coach McGraw’s success to her unique coaching style. "She does not just coach for the team or for individuals on the team, but for both. She motivated us to work together as a team, while recognizing our different strengths," she says. Practices were planned to the second, intense and productive.
"I believe her leadership style was one based on attitude. If we had the right attitude as a team and as individuals, we were taught that we were winners. She knew she could physically prepare us, but her real leadership was in the form of teaching us to believe we could win. It was an attitude that we all were held accountable. We were accountable to our team and to ourselves. She also had these same expectations of herself, which we all respected," Lohman says.
Lohman sums up her Notre Dame Basketball experience as fulfilling, challenging, enriching, fun and intense. She says that the lesson she’s carried with her is that "a winning attitude will make you a winner. A great attitude personally helped me get hired, achieve sales, complete projects and earn the respect of my co-workers. I feel I was successful in the workplace and am successful in life because of my attitude. While playing at Notre Dame, I was not the most naturally talented player, but my skills and performance advanced much further than I ever imagined. In hindsight, I realize that many things I have accomplished in my life are not because of natural talent, but are due to a positive attitude and effort. I did not fully realize the importance of a great attitude until I played basketball for Coach McGraw."
Currently, Lohman is a busy mom raising 3 boys in Atlanta and her basketball life consists of playing driveway basketball with her kids and coaching her 8-year-old’s team!