Its not the way Brandi Castaneda would have ever wanted to become the Pocomoke High School field hockey coach.
But when legendary coach Susan Pusey died unexpectedly just weeks before the start of practice, the Pocomoke teacher and former Warriors four-time state champion (’94-’97) knew she had to do something.
“When something like this occurs, you put your game face back on and you really have to figure out what you have to do to keep going,” Castaneda said. “You can’t just sit back and watch somebody else pick the pieces up when you know you have a part to play.”
Nothing about the situation is happy, but it seems right that for the first time since she was Pusey’s assistant coach for three seasons, Castaneda will be on the sidelines again.
“It’s not the way I would have wanted to be reintroduced to the program,” she said. “However it is an honor. It’s one of those things where once you belong, you’ll always be a part of it.”
So, as field hockey practice opens at Pocomoke on Wednesday, Aug. 12, there will be a different coach in charge for the first time in 23 years.
She knows she isn’t replacing Pusey, but rather carrying on the program.
“It’s like filling the shoes of Goliath,” Castaneda said. “There is just no possible way to do it.”
While Pusey seemed to know every Pocomoke player since they were very young, even being the person who introduced them to the game in many cases, Castaneda’s story is a bit different.
Her connection began with her mother, Sandi Stone, who was Pusey’s roommate in college and remained her very good friend.
She was Brandi Shobe when she was helping win state field hockey titles, but she was so close with the family and Pusey’s nieces (Jodi Hollamon and Juli Bradford), who were her teammates, the joke was often that she was Brandi Byrd.
Pusey was essentially her “Aunt Susie” too, and she still refers to Pusey’s husband, Danny, as “uncle Danny.”
After graduating from Stevenson (then Villa Julie), she then worked as an assistant coach with Pusey at Pocomoke, and with Hollamon at Mardela and Parkside.
“Seeing some of the championships coming back and coaching with Susan really kind of paved the road so that I do know that I have what it takes,” she said. “Its dealing with the emotion initially, but the determination makes you put your game face on.”
Marriage took her away from the Eastern Shore, but 10 years ago she returned to Pocomoke, where she was a computer tech for five years before becoming a teaching for the past five years.
She wasn’t coaching, but her daily lunches with Pusey for the last 10 years kept her up with the program. She was involved, but was waiting for her three children (Aubrie 9, Madison 7, Darian 4) to all be in school before becoming a big part of the Warriors field hockey family again.
Darian goes to Pre-K this year, so she decided it was close enough that she could make it work under the circumstances.
“It’s about the girls”
When she moved forward, she did so with the knowledge that not only her family was behind her, including her husband, Ian, but also the Byrd and Pusey families — and that was important to her.
She stepped up initially to fill the void with the caveat that she would step back if they needed her to, but Principal Annette Wallace named her the interim coach while she was attending a team camp at the University of Maryland.
She said that that time with the girls in College Park may have been exactly what they needed. She got to tell them in person that she would be their coach and they got to get through those first emotional days on the field together.
“Its about the girls,” she said. “Its not really about me. I’m just a continuing face of the tradition. Just like for (Pusey), it was never about her. It was always about the girls and their ambitions and their desires.”
She knows the tradition would never continue without the desire and hard work of the girls that will be on this year’s Warriors roster.
“I’m going to run the Pusey-perfected program,” she said. “That is always my mission and always will be. Transition or not, we are looking to keep that the same.”
She will work with assistant coach Lisa Holland, who was Pusey’s assistant last year and played for Pocomoke under Pat Westcott. It provides more continuity for the players, and that is important.
“I couldn’t ask for anyone better to stand beside,” Castaneda said.
She doesn’t like the fanfare that has surrounded her being named coach. She doesn’t relish the extra attention that will be on the team this year that has nothing to do with wins and losses.
The team has what she called limitless potential and has come together in the face of a challenging situation. The players call themselves “P-Unit” (P for Pocomoke) and have already dedicated the season to Pusey.
It’s something that was important to them as they accept both that she is gone and the changes that come with that reality. That’s still not easy for anyone, but Castaneda is trying to accept her new role.
“Even I’m starting to feel a sense of peace about it,” Castaneda said. “I think if it was her choice and under different circumstances something were to have kept her from coaching, I’m pretty sure this is how the chips would have fallen.
“I think it would have been one of those situations where she expected me to step up and either not let things fall or do it myself.”
On Twitter: @ShawnYonker