Jackie Neary with her 2023 seniors in April.

'It's Who I Am': Jackie Neary Gave Her All to Cabrini Athletics

Jackie Neary is synonymous with women’s athletics at Cabrini. That’s a sentiment borrowed from her university bio but repeated time and again by those closest to her.

The first women’s lacrosse coach in Cabrini history will finish the spring season as the only women’s lacrosse coach in Cabrini history. In June, news broke that nearby Villanova would acquire the small Division III school, and Cabrini would cease operations as a result.

It was a devastating blow to Neary, an overwhelmingly positive spirit who has proven to be a bright light to all those around her. She talks about Cabrini as if it’s a loved one and returns that love in spades to anyone who shares in her affection for the tree-lined campus less than 20 miles outside of Philadelphia.

“Coaching at Cabrini is not what I do. It’s who I am,” Neary said. “Over 28 years, I raised my four children there. I beat cancer there. I buried my parents while I was there. It’s always been a mainstay in my life.”

Accolades — of which there are many — don’t even scratch the surface of what Neary has meant to Cabrini. But they’re most certainly worth recognizing. The 2013 Cabrini Athletics Hall of Famer started the women’s lacrosse program from scratch in 1997 and has since amassed a 336-152 record with 21 conference championships in 26 full seasons.

Also the university’s field hockey coach since 1996, Neary has a 281-251 record with six conference championships in the sport. Cabrini was an Atlantic East conference semifinalist this fall.

That’s over 600 wins as a head coach for someone who appreciates the victories but revels in the relationships. A 1984 national champion at Temple under legendary head coach Tina Sloan Green, Neary knows what it takes to win. For her, it begins and ends with a culture that breeds opportunity.

“I can’t even put [Neary’s impact] into words,” said Julie Smith, who played field hockey and lacrosse under Neary from 2001-05 before serving as her assistant in both sports from 2006-19. “The most remarkable thing about her is the number of people she’s truly saved and given a path to. They didn’t know what their path was, but she created it.”

“Coaching at Cabrini is not what I do. It’s who I am.”

— Jackie Neary

Smith’s a beneficiary of Neary’s uncanny ability to pave the way for her athletes. The Drexel Hill, Pa., native calls her “Mother Cabrini.” She’d take a bullet for her. It’s ironic, then, that Smith wasn’t completely sold on the idea of going to Cabrini in the first place.

The school was essentially around the corner from Archbishop Carroll High School, where Smith was a standout athlete. She thought sports might be her ticket out of the area.

“Come hell or high water, all I knew I wanted was to play in college,” Smith said. “There was the allure of the D-I world, and I had the heart twice the size of anyone else, but I wasn’t twice the size in my playing abilities. Jackie finds me out of the woodwork one day. She meets my mom, I meet Jackie. … You had to drag me out of Cabrini, but you had to drag me in there.”

You’ll have to drag Brett Gougler out of Cabrini, too. The son of Jessie Gougler, who played field hockey and lacrosse for the Cavaliers from 1996-99 before coaching field hockey with Neary from 2000-03, Brett Gougler is a sophomore on the men’s lacrosse team.

In October, USA Lacrosse Magazine told the story of the Cabrini men’s team, highlighting the 27 players who chose to return for one final season despite no future at the school beyond May. One of the reasons Gougler stayed was Neary, who is a positive force throughout the entire athletic department.

“The more you’re around her, the more you want to be around her,” Jessie Gougler said. “She just makes you feel so good about yourself. As a player, you want to play well for her.”

Neary isn’t dealing with the same numbers problem as the men’s team. She has 19 players, which isn’t far off from her usual 25. She even picked up a graduate transfer for the spring and has some freshmen who opted to stay.

After her immediate shock and devastation as a result of the news subsided, and after an impactful conversation with Smith — Neary’s “Honest Broker” — Neary made her intentions clear.

The first full-time coach in the history of Cabrini wasn’t going anywhere.

“I’m here if you want to stay. If you’re going to leave, I’ll help you get to where you want to go,” Neary told her players. “I’m beyond thrilled that I stayed because of all the interactions I’m having with my field hockey team right now. I’m so glad we have this last opportunity.”

Neary has a zest for coaching and life. She said it comes from surviving choriocarcinoma, which she was diagnosed with a few weeks after giving birth to Shea, her fourth child and a current player on both of her mother’s teams. Neary coached during chemotherapy and hardly missed a game, let alone a practice.


Jackie Neary is the first and only women's lacrosse head coach in Cabrini history.

She’d schedule appointments around her coaching duties to put her players first.

“I was coaching with her at that time,” Gougler said. “She would show up, but as sick as she was, she would never let on how sick she was. She did her best to rearrange her appointments so she would always be there.”

But if she needed a hand, all of Cabrini came to help.

“No one hesitated one bit,” Gougler said. “If they said Jackie needed something, they would jump through hoops.”

It’s not hard to see why her support is reciprocated. It’s because Neary views Cabrini as an extension of her family and treats everyone around her as such. Her daughter, Jackie, was on the sideline at two weeks old. Each of her four children were raised around her players and quite literally grew up on Cabrini’s campus.

“Tina Sloan Green said [the sidelines are] the best place to raise your children,” Neary said. “I don’t think coaching’s in their blood, but I think Cabrini’s in their blood.”

So, it’s easy to understand why Neary’s voice cracks when she talks about just how much the 112-acre campus means to her. Her impact stems far beyond the confines of Edith Robb Dixon Field, as does the campus’ impact on her.

And while Neary wants no part in receiving praise, this academic year is going to be filled with it. In many ways, Neary is the face of women’s athletics at Cabrini. Her personable attitude and ability to get every ounce of talent from her athletes being the keys to her recruiting pitch for nearly three decades. The relationships forged are so strong that Neary can’t even count how many weddings of former athletes she’s attended.

Neary hopes to bring her next-to-none culture-building skills elsewhere after the spring. At 59 years old, she said she isn’t ready to retire and feels she has more to offer young women’s athletes.

She turned down advances from other schools in the past and could have abandoned ship this summer, but Neary’s heart will forever remain at Cabrini — even as it closes its doors.

“The captain’s going down with the ship,” Smith said.


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