Kassie Archambault sat down with her legs crossed on the floor of the gymnasium at Phillips Academy in Andover.
Trying her best to write neatly, she kept her head down as she guided a pencil on the sheets of paper in front of her.
In a matter of minutes, Archambault put the finishing touches on each of her handmade brackets and welcomed the 80-plus wrestlers who had registered for the Phillips Andover All-Girls Wrestling Tournament on the last Sunday in January.
Six years ago, in her second season on the Big Blue staff, Archambault started the tourney with former coach Richard Gorman. Less than 12 girls registered for the tournament that year.
Even worse, she remembered people mistaking her for anyone but a coach.
“They’d often think I was the manager at first,” recalled Archambault. “People were just surprised to see a female coach on the sidelines.”
Last April, Archambault took the helm of the Phillips Andover co-ed wrestling program after Gorman retired. She is the first female head wrestling coach in New England Prep school history — 16 years after she became the first female varsity wrestler at Phillips Andover.
Under the tutelage of the 31-year-old Methuen native, the Big Blue compiled a 10-5 record in the regular season, placed fourth at the Class A tourney — with champions at 126 and 170 pounds — and will compete in New England prep tournament (NEISWA) this weekend in Hartford.
“Any woman coaching boys in any sport faces a challenge,” said Gorman.
But, he said, Archamault’s expertise in the sport dismissed any skepticism about her ability as a coach.
“By clearly knowing what she’s doing, the entire team listens to her,” Gorman said.
Archambault started wrestling as a freshman at Andover in 2002. She grew up “rough-housing” with her younger brother, Jared, and participated in gymnastics up until high school.
Gymnastics gave her the upper body strength she needed to stand out on the co-ed junior varsity team. She showed her true potential, however, after a disappointing loss in an exhibition match that first season.
Against a female wrestler from Northfield Mount Herman, Archambault remembered building an 8-0 lead in one of her first JV meets. But, within seconds, she managed to lose.
“I made a stupid mistake and got pinned,” she said.
The next day, Gorman approached her at practice.
“I remember him saying, ‘You were pretty upset after that match,’” Archambault recalled. “He then told me, ‘That’s the moment I knew you were a wrestler,’ and that’s all that I needed to return to the mat.”
She never looked back, closing the season with a top three finish at the New England Class A tournament—the first female to ever place at the event.
“She worked as hard as anybody I’d ever coached,” said Gorman, the head coach for 22 years. “She would just come in, look at something, and say, ‘I want to do that.’”
The following year, as a junior, she won USGWA tournaments in Massachusetts and New Jersey on her way to a national Top 10 ranking.
“[Gorman] was so encouraging of me,” she said. “It was at a time when I don’t think I was encouraged on other teams, based on comments that I heard from other players on other teams.”
After her graduation in 2006, Archambault studied Russian at Dartmouth and then taught middle and high school in New York City for two years.
In 2012, she returned to Andover for a Russian teaching fellowship. She also agreed to serve as an assistant coach on the co-ed wrestling team alongside her former head coach.
According to Gorman, her genuine care for each wrestler made an immediate impact. He referred to her approach as, “relentless positive encouragement.”
“Wrestlers want to wrestle for her,” he said. “She finds away to make them feel good even if things aren’t going well.”
Last February, Marisol Nugent, a five-time All-American from Boxford, experienced Archambault’s coaching style up-close.
Recovering from hamstring replacement surgery for a torn anterior cruciate ligament, Nugent sat at home and tried her best to forget about missing her national competitions that week.
But, sure enough, Archambault knocked on her door with a gift basket in hand.
“To have my coach sitting with me, and telling me that I’d come back for this and that I wasn’t alone, was a really special for me,” said Nugent, now a senior co-captain. “She knows that we have this end goal of winning a national title at the end of the year, and she always helps me stay focused on that. That way, I don’t get down on myself.”
Gorman noted how well Archambault formed relationships with her student-athletes. So, when he stepped down as head coach in April, he called Archambault the perfect candidate for the job.
“All of our parents have known me since their child joined our program and our school,” Archambault said. “I’ve only received positive feedback from the community.”
Eamon Garrity-Rokous, a senior co-captain from Columbus, Ohio, said Archambault’s gender had no bearing on her ability to do her job.
“As long as I have a coach who is passionate about their athletes and their overall well-being, then that’s all that matters,” he said.
After three straight years of placing higher than second at the Class A championships, Garrity-Rokous broke through two weeks ago for the 170-pound title at the Hyde School in Maine.
He credited Archambault for helping him minimize the pressure he had put on himself in previous years.
“Now, whenever I go on that mat, I go out and have fun,” he said. “Over the years, I think I had forgotten those reasons why I joined in the first place. I think she got me to remember why.”
Nugent said Archmabault played a key role in her quick recovery from her ACL procedure.
In the fall, Nugent returned five months earlier than expected and finished fifth in the Super 32 national tournament.
“She’ll take the extra five or 10 minutes after practice to talk to me, text me, or call me to check in and see how I’m doing mentally to make sure I have my head in the game,” said Nugent.
“She was super supportive of me. She always told me to keep my head up and made me feel like a valued member of the team.”
Off the mat, that meant assisting Nugent on anything ranging from ACT prep to supporting Nugent’s all-girls wrestling team in Lowell, the “Doughgirls.”
At the all-girls tournament in January, officials took note of Archmabault’s impressive body of work.
“Girls are going to save the sport of wrestling,” said George Kacavas, a MIWOA referee who attended the tournament.
“This is one of the few tournaments in the Northeast that meets the needs of women against women,” Kacavas said.
“With girls coming to the forefront, we now have Olympic champions and world champions. It’s phenomenal for the sport.”
Mike Kotsopoulos can be reached at email@example.com.