It was 1991, and Suzette Soboti had just graduated from college and moved back to her parents’ house in New Jersey. Her former high school’s athletic director knew she needed a job, so he asked her to apply for an opening—coaching freshmen field hockey. “I told him I had never played field hockey before,” Soboti recalls. “But he said, ‘You’ll figure it out.’”
And figure it out she did. Soboti ended up coaching high school basketball and lacrosse, and soccer for a junior college and club. She also worked in corporate fitness for AT&T. Often, she was the only female on staff; opponents of teams she coached would sometimes mistake her for the team manager.
She had originally wanted to go to graduate school for physical therapy, but that idea soon took a back seat to working with athletes. “Coaching didn’t feel like work. It became something that I really loved to do because it was part of who I was—an athlete.”
Soboti came to Redlands in 1998 as head coach of women’s soccer and was charged with developing lacrosse on campus. That year, Soboti led the Bulldogs to the program’s first-ever winning season and a second-place finish in the soccer conference. Since then, the women’s soccer program has consistently finished in the conference’s top three, earning six second-place showings and five Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championships (2001, 2004, 2006, 2008, and 2015).
She also established the women’s lacrosse team as a competitive program, moving from club to varsity status in 1999. Since then, the Bulldogs have won more than 165 games, captured three conference titles, and advanced to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championships on four occasions. In 2012, Soboti led the team to its first-ever NCAA playoff win.
In 2016, she was named to the Greater Los Angeles Chapter of the US Lacrosse Hall of Fame for her work developing the sport beyond Redlands and establishing the Southern California Girls’ Lacrosse Association.
If that weren’t enough, she also teaches an exercise physiology class called Scientific Concepts of Physical Education and Sport.
Despite the demanding workload of coaching, recruiting, and teaching, Soboti makes sure members of her teams come together as people. “We want to win a lot of games, of course, but students stay because of the culture we’ve built—great academics, opportunities to study abroad, and our Bulldog family.” She hosts family dinners for her athletes at her home and is always available for students. “I make sure they know that if they have a crisis in their lives, they can find support here.”
Former students and peers regard Soboti as one of the U of R greats and eventual Redlands Hall of Famer. But retirement isn’t for another 15 years, so Soboti laughs when asked about her legacy.
Soboti says she wants to create a culture of alumni who feel compelled to give back to the sport they are passionate about. Dozens of her students, including Emily Durban ’05, assistant lacrosse coach at the University of Washington, have become coaches themselves.
Durban says of Soboti, “Her coaching support sparks off fires within her student-athletes for both the pure love of the game and for self-growth. We want to be a part of the game because Suzette taught us life through the game: This is how we know we can build up others.
“And that’s how the wildfires go, right? They catch and spread. That’s how I see the legacy of Coach Soboti playing out. She lights fires in quality Bulldogs.”
(This article also ran in Och Tamale magazine.)