East Stroudsburg’s Rachel Ward: ‘I Got This’


Rachel Ward is in her fourth year on the East Stroudsburg coaching staff.

Rachel Ward knew it was coming, but that doesn’t make the reality of the moment any less impactful.

Now in her fourth year on the East Stroudsburg coaching staff, a conversation with head coach Xeni Barakos-Yoder late last summer gave Ward ample warning that this spring season would be a different experience for her.

Coming off the program’s first-ever appearance in the NCAA Division II women’s lacrosse championship game, Ward had been nationally recognized for her contributions by being named the IWLCA’s Division II Outstanding Assistant Coach. Now, she was being told that she would have a new title for the start of the 2023 campaign: interim head coach.

“Xeni told me in August that she was expecting,” Ward said. “When she told me her due date was the day of our first game, I just said, ‘We’ll figure it out.’ Literally, that’s as easy as it was.”

On Feb. 23, East Stroudsburg made the official announcement that Barakos-Yoder was stepping away from the program on medical leave following the birth of her daughter and that Ward was assuming the interim role indefinitely. Barakos-Yoder is expected to return sometime during the 2023 season, but no timetable has been announced.

“During the whole fall and preseason, we were talking about this,” Ward said. “We have a great relationship. I think she was a little more nervous than I was, but I told her, ‘You taught me well and I know exactly what you expect and what we expect for our program.’” 

After back-to-back final four appearances in 2021 and 2022, the expectations are lofty. So lofty, in fact, that East Stroudsburg began this season tabbed as the No. 1 team in the Nike/USA Lacrosse Division II Women’s Preseason Top 20.

Becoming an interim head coach at any program can present unique challenges, but taking over the top-ranked team in the country certainly adds another level of responsibility. Ward, however, says she doesn’t really feel any pressure.

“At the end of the day, my job is to help the players be the best they can be every single day,” she said. “Does it get a little stressful? Yeah, it does. But it’s the season. The season is what we live for, and if I have to take on a couple of extra things to help them, then I will do that.”

On the field, Ward has expanded her focus from overseeing the offense, which featured three 100-point producers in 2022, to a wider view that encompasses all areas. She’s also managing the peripheral duties that head coaches typically handle, like schedule changes, game or practice time adjustments and pep talks.

“We’re still working on the pregame talks. They are going to get better eventually,” she said confidently.

There’s also full confidence from the program’s architect that her lieutenant is up to the challenge.

“I have all the faith in the world in Rachel,” Barakos-Yoder said. “She will continue to lead the team in the right direction. We have had many conversations on scenarios, and I trust she will uphold the standards we have built. The team understands the expectations of the program and should be living that daily in my absence.”

Ward echoed that sentiment. Led by USA Lacrosse Magazine Preseason Player of the Year Emily Mitarotunda and All-Americans Kiki Fitzpatrick and Maggie Sell, the Warriors are a veteran team with 19 returning letterwinners.

“We have a great group of girls, and at the end of the day, we want to play in May. That’s what my focus is until we get to May, and that’s when it’s go-time,” Ward said.

When Ward first arrived at East Stroudsburg after four seasons as an assistant at Grand Valley State, the Warriors were still the chasers, trying to vie with West Chester in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) East Division. Coming off the program’s accomplishments of the past few seasons, ESU has now become the chased and must be prepared for every opponent’s best effort.

That was a lesson learned the hard way on March 4, in Ward’s second game in charge, as visiting Pace handed the Warriors a surprising 16-6 setback in a game that finished with a running clock. East Stroudsburg, ranked eighth in the latest Nike/USA Lacrosse Top 20, steadied the ship with four straight victories prior to Tuesday’s loss at rival and top-ranked West Chester.

As a former PSAC player, Ward understands the rigors of playing in the competitive league. She was a three-year starter and two-time all-conference player at Lock Haven who helped the Bald Eagles finish as national runners-up in 2014 and 2015. She draws on that experience, as well as two tours with Team Ireland in the World Lacrosse Women's Championship, as she helps ESU navigate the season.

“I know that there are eyes on us,” she said.

As the early season now transitions into midseason, Ward remains in control, with Barakos-Yoder still maintaining her distance. Ward explains that the two do indeed have regular conversations, but lacrosse is not usually the top item on the agenda.

“Do I call her every day? No. Am I checking in with her to see how the baby is? Yes, for sure,” Ward said. “I’m telling her that we are fine and I got this. I’m just doing as much as I can and hope that she is enjoying her time with her new baby girl. Right now, I’ve got this, and she’s got that.”


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