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Head coach is a familiar title for Dwight Hornibrook — and Cornell is a familiar team. After five years serving as assistant coach of the Cornell women’s soccer program, Hornibrook has stepped up to the head coaching role after the departure of Patrick Farmer this past offseason.
Hornibrook, who joined the program at the same time as Farmer, says he hopes to build on some of the groundwork laid out by his former boss, but wants to put his own spin on things at the same time.
“I have my own way of doing things,” Hornibrook said. “There are some things that Farmer did that I thought were really good; Farmer had a ton of experience.”
One such change Hornibrook is keen on implementing is forming a team focused on mental fitness just as much as physical fitness. After sending his own kids to college, Hornibrook knows the stresses that can come at a place like Cornell, especially for the newcomers to his team.
As for the physical fitness, “there’s been a stronger emphasis [during] training on making sure that we’re ready to play from a physical perspective,” he said. “That was something that I don’t think we were as good at as we needed to be.”
And when it comes to mental health, Hornibrook said “I coach people before I coach players. You’re not just a soccer player. You’re somebody’s daughter, you’re a student.”
Hoping to alleviate as much stress as he can for a team under transition, Hornibrook says he plans to instill a “praise-oriented” culture on the team, which is coming off a low 5-9-2 2016 season despite riding a highly-successful 2015.
“We try to develop a culture that is praise-oriented,” Hornibrook said. “That doesn’t mean you’re not going to get critique, because you have to get critique to improve, but we want [the players] to feel like we value them. We’re here to add value to their lives on the soccer field as well as people, and obviously we want them to have an incredible four years here at Cornell.”
One key factor that could help Hornirbook is his experience. Not only does he have a rich history as a head coach, but he said his time around the Cornell program should minimize any issues that could arise with a new coach for any team, not just his.
“Stepping into this role is more natural because I spent most of my career as a head coach,” Hornibrook said. “And I [have] great relationships with the [Cornell] players because of the assistant coach’s role.”
Hornibrook’s familiarity with Ithaca extends beyond the women’s program, as he was an assistant coach for the Cornell men in the spring of 2004.
And prior to his time at Cornell, Hornibrook spent eight seasons as head coach of the Cortland men’s soccer team, leading the Red Dragons to their first-ever SUNYAC championship in 2008 in addition to coaching a number of highly distinguished players, including the 2007 SUNYAC Player of the Year. The team’s overall record under Hornibrook was 63-69-17.
Preceding Cortland, Hornibrook gained valuable experience as head coach of the men at Houghton College for nine seasons, compiling an even more impressive record of 119-46-13, and at one point earning a No. 9 ranking in Division III.
Even before his career as a collegiate coach, Hornibrook’s life was centered around the pitch.
As an undergraduate, he attended the University of New Brunswick, where he was a member of a men’s soccer team which won the CIS Championship in 1980. He went on to earn his master’s in sports science from the United States Sports Academy in 2008, on top of attending the National Coaching Institute, where he earned a diploma in high performance coaching.
Further back, he worked as a high performance coach for the Canadian National Team for several years, working with World Cup, Olympic and U-17 National teams, including the 1992 Canadian World Cup squad.
His experiences working with soccer players at all levels, including the most elite, have made Hornibrook well-equipped to assess the skills of his collegiate level athletes and help them develop toward becoming players of the highest caliber.
During his time as an assistant coach for the Red, he worked individually with many of Cornell’s greatest players, helping shape the likes of Elizabeth Crowell ’17 and Kelsey Tierney ’17, the Red’s first All-Ivy first-team selections since 1995, in addition to the team’s current captains and standouts.
“I was excited to hear that he had been appointed head coach, as I have grown to respect him as both a coach and person over the three years I’ve known him,” said current senior captain Kaylee Fitzgerald. “He is extremely dedicated to this team, and has been a consistent positive presence on and off the field. I’m excited for this upcoming season and I can’t wait to see what our team accomplishes under his leadership.”
Hornibrook’s relationships with players like Fitzgerald have made for a relatively smooth transition into his new role despite the magnitude of a head coaching change. But while his familiarity has provided some sense of consistency for the Red, he has no intention of maintaining the status quo.
Despite his respect for Farmer’s coaching style, Hornibrook intends to implement changes in both the physical and psychological realms of the women’s team. Physically, he emphasizes a heightened level of conditioning.
To achieve the level of fitness he believes necessary for peak performance on game-day, Hornibrook has been simulating real-game levels of competition during practice.
“You have to play to get better, and so our practices are very play oriented,” he says. “We spend a lot of time focusing on how to react to the game. You don’t have time to think about it, it’s not a science lab — you’ve got to react the right way.”
Hornibrook’s goal for the team this season is to win the Ivy League — a goal which demands the highest levels of focus and dedication from his players. And while he aims to bring out the best in his athletes on the field, he remains conscious of the fact that soccer is only one facet of their lives.
Hornibrook’s awareness of his athletes’ identities apart from the soccer team is perhaps reinforced by the fact that his own daughters, Kathryn and Emily, are not far in age from his players. In addition, he is married to the winningest field hockey coach in Cornell history, whom he can learn from each day. His wife, Donna, currently leads a dynamic field hockey program that plays its games just a field over from the women’s soccer team.
While his wife and two daughters provide support away from the field, Hornibrook looks to foster yet another family in his life by cultivating a trusting and supportive team culture.
“We’re not trying to intimidate them, or bully them or anything like that,” he said of his team. “We’re your new family.”
Such commitment to his athletes’ mental well being, paired with a fiercely competitive mindset, gives a promising glimpse of what lies ahead for the Red — this season, and in seasons to come.
And while Hornibrook has observed the Cornell women’s program for years from a more supporting role, he is ready to take the next step as its leader.
“I actually have to make the decisions,” Hornibrook said. “So it does put a little more pressure on me because obviously I’m in charge and the results fall on my shoulders.
“Now I’m not just giving suggestions.”