Julia Littlefield Sterling, a woman synonymous with athletic success, who inspired her players to enjoy the moment with endless positive reinforcement, has decided to end her long coaching career.
Sterling, who started the Yarmouth girls’ lacrosse program and later took over the Clippers’ fiercest rival, North Yarmouth Academy, guiding both to state championships, in addition to leading the Panthers’ field hockey program to two state titles, said in an interview last week that her age and recent health challenges led to her decision.
“I thought about it last year, but I felt like I had to take the seniors I began with as a freshmen to the end,” Sterling said.
Sterling and the NYA girls’ lacrosse team underwent a tumultuous 2010 campaign which included two regular season losses to Yarmouth, the death of the mother of standout player Courtney Dumont and Sterling’s absence for much of the season after coming down with a severe case of diverticulitis which led to the removal of part of her colon. The Panthers somehow kept it together, peaked in June and with Sterling back in the saddle, knocked off the Clippers in the regional final, then finally vanquished longtime nemesis Waynflete in the state final.
That roller-coaster ride was the impetus for this decision.
“I turned 60 and got really sick,” Sterling said. “I wonder if I’d make that decision if I hadn’t.”
After growing up playing basketball, field hockey and tennis and attending Waynflete and Mt. Vernon College, she got her coaching start at Waynflete in the mid-1980s, leading the girls’ basketball team. In a foreshadowing of a future stint, she spent a few years with the NYA field hockey program and also started the NYA Day Camp.
Some 20 years ago, then known as Julia Littlefield, she became the matriarch of the Yarmouth girls’ lacrosse program.
“In 1991, I was asked to start a Yarmouth girls’ lacrosse team,” Sterling said. “I didn’t know the sport, but they needed an adult. I went to clinics and learned the sport quickly. We had blue-and-white striped shirts since we couldn’t afford home and away.”
From humble beginnings, the Clippers soon became one of the state’s elite powers.
Yarmouth kicked things off in style in 1992, beating NYA, 11-3, in its first game. The Clippers lost three of their next four games, but wound up 6-5, losing to Waynflete in the semifinals.
The next year, Yarmouth made it to the MAISAD Finals, losing to Gould, 11-8. After losing to Gould in the 1994 state game and Waynflete in the 1995 semifinals, the Clippers won their first title in 1996, edging the Flyers, 5-4, in the finale.
That spring, Yarmouth was led by a standout who, with the support of her coach, used lacrosse to help overcome a scary situation.
“In 1996, my top girl, Kristin Powell, had an eating disorder,” Sterling said. “In the hospital, the doctor asked her what she loved the most and she said, ‘I’d die if I can’t play lacrosse.’ He said, ‘You’ll die if you don’t eat.’ Little by little, she got better. She was the center of my team when we beat Waynflete for the state championship.”
The Clippers got back to the finals in 1998 and 1999, losing to Waynflete both times.
Then, late in 1999, her husband, David Littlefield, a well-known coach, passed away, leaving a huge void. Sterling coached in 2000, leading Yarmouth to the semifinals, where it lost to Bonny Eagle, but she opted to take the following season off.
By 2002, she was back with the Clippers and they were perfect, winning a state championship in undefeated and memorable fashion.
“I knew I needed to come back,” Sterling said. “I was ready to come back in 2002. That was the best team I ever had.”
After coaching in 2003 and 2004, she stepped down again, expecting it to be for good, but NYA’s field hockey program had an opening and by the fall of 2005, she was back.
“I was really done after 2004, but NYA was looking for a field hockey coach and a lacrosse coach,” Sterling said. “I wanted my daughter, Meg, to take it. She said no and I said, ‘If you don’t, I’m going to.’ I went for field hockey.”
One thing she couldn’t do at the time was coach girls’ lacrosse, so soon after leaving the Yarmouth program to Dorothy Holt.
‘I couldn’t take the lacrosse job then,” Sterling said. “I couldn’t do that to Dorothy, my town and my school.”
After falling in the Western C field hockey quarterfinals in 2005 and 2006, Sterling guided NYA to the regional final in 2007, losing to Telstar.
The following spring, the NYA girls’ lacrosse job was open again and this time, she bit.
“By 2007, I’d moved to Cumberland and I wasn’t ready to give up an opportunity to coach two varsity sports at private school,” said Sterling.
In the spring of 2008, her first season, the Panthers reached the state final, but lost to Waynflete. That fall, Sterling led NYA to its first Class C field hockey championship in 14 seasons. The Panthers lost in the girls’ lacrosse state game (to Waynflete) in June, 2009 and in the field hockey championship (to Dexter) that fall.
Then came last spring (a long-awaited title) and this fall (another field hockey crown).
“I brought (NYA) some hardware,” said the coach, who recently married James Sterling.
This spring, her final season, Sterling again had to navigate challenges, including injuries and the suspension of several key players due to a post-Prom party. The Panthers again got to the regional final and gave eventual champion Yarmouth a mighty scare, but ultimately lost by a goal.
Sterling leaves amid great admiration and gratitude.
“Julia taught me a lot and it was a privilege to assist her,” said Holt. “We got along so well and had fun. She started this amazing program at Yarmouth. She had an amazing run and will be greatly missed in the lacrosse community.”
“Julia’s one of the most unique coaches I’ve ever met,” said NYA athletic director Mike Dutton. “She’s a special person. She connects with athletes as well as any coach I’ve ever been around. She owes her success to relationship building and the intuition she has about what a team needs. The intangibles she has based on personal relationships works really well with high school athletes. She gets the kids to believe in her. Her loss creates a hole in our staff. We have big shoes to fill.”
Dutton said that longtime assistant Tracy Quimby will take over Sterling’s field hockey duties. The search for a new girls’ lacrosse coach is ongoing.
Last week, Sterling told her players she would not return.
A difficult announcement indeed.
“I was very teary telling the kids goodbye,” she said. “I could barely speak, but it’s time for the young spitfires out of college to take over.”
The sadness didn’t last. When all is said and done, Sterling’s coaching career will be remembered for plenty of triumph, but more importantly for imparting life lessons, having fun and creating a unique bonding experience.
“I’ll miss the laughter of the kids,” Sterling said. “I must have guffawed 100 times every practice. Coaching was my life. Making kids feel good about themselves was my philosophy. The more you’re positive, the more you feel good and the more others feel good.
“I’ve been lucky for 20 years. It’s been a very rewarding experience. It’s great to be outdoors and to be with kids. Kids want a mentor. I think I have a spirit for coaching.”
Julia Littlefield Sterling was a welcome sideline presence for over two decades. After five state championships, she is retiring.