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Monday, Jun 24, 2024

Middlebury varsity coaches reflect on past professional playing careers

Greg Conrad ’17 is one of eleven Middlebury varsity coaches to have played professional sports. Courtesy Photo
Greg Conrad ’17 is one of eleven Middlebury varsity coaches to have played professional sports. Courtesy Photo

Did you know that eleven Middlebury varsity athletic coaches once played professional sports? Yes, eleven. From a former professional baseball player to a two-time Olympic skier, Middlebury’s coaches bring a rich history of professional playing experience to their teams. 

This past week, I connected with many of these coaches to hear about their past professional athletic experiences. Here is what they had to say…

Mike Leonard — Head Coach, Men’s Baseball — Double A Baseball

Mike Leonard (far right) poses with three teammates on the Lowell Spinners in 2005. Courtesy Photo

After four years of playing baseball for the University of Connecticut, Mike Leonard signed with the Boston Red Sox organization as a free agent. The catcher spent four years in Boston’s minor-league system, playing for teams such as the Gulf Coast League Red Sox, Lowell Spinners, and Greenville Drive. Leonard’s biggest accomplishment was playing at the Double A level with the Portland Sea Dogs in Maine. In 2009, Leonard concluded his professional baseball as a player-coach with the Worcester Tornadoes, an independent team in the Can-Am league. 

What Leonard had to say: “The entire experience of being able to realize a childhood dream of playing professional baseball was incredible. Playing in front of thousands of people and having people ask for your autograph was a surreal experience. There are two moments that come to mind as really memorable.  The first was being able to play in a Major League spring training game. I got to hit in the 9th inning against the Twins which was pretty awesome. Closest I ever got to being a ‘Big Leaguer.’ The other moment was when I was playing for the Worcester Tornadoes. It was the last stop of my career and my role as player-coach where I served as our back-up catcher and helped coach the pitchers. We were playing in the Championship game in Quebec City and former MLB All-Star and Cy Young winner Eric Gagne was pitching. As a native of Montreal, he had a ton of fan support and as he was closing out the 9th inning of the final game against our team; close to 10,000 people were on their feet cheering and chanting his name. While we lost the game, the atmosphere was incredible and it was a ton of fun.”

Nicole Wilkerson —  Head Coach, Men’s & Women’s Cross Country — U.S. Track & Field Qualifier in 10k race

Wilkerson was an All-American

track athlete at Rice University (Texas), specializing in long distance races. After graduating in 1993, Wilkerson trained at the professional level, qualifying for the 10k at the 1995 U.S. Track & Field National Qualifier. The following year, Wilkerson ran the 10k in the U.S. Olympic trials.

What Wilkerson had to say: “The biggest takeaway was that it actually got easier to just focus on being an athlete. Academics at Rice were hard and when I graduated and was just running and working part-time, I got so much more sleep, less stress, etc., that training and racing was just easier. Being a student athlete is hard and you don’t realize how hard it is until you are no longer a student and are just an athlete. Some of the highlights for me were being invited to or qualifying for bigger meets and having it paid for, which is kind of silly but it wasn’t a stage I was used to or expected to be at most of my time competing at Rice. And in my own running world, totally geeked out on getting to warm up in and around the same area as some really fast women was a super highlight.”

Jack Ceglarski — Assistant Coach, Men’s Hockey — Pro Hockey Player in ECHL, SPHL

Jack Ceglarski played professional hockey before becoming an assistant coach at Middlebury College. Courtesy Photo

After four successful seasons as a hockey player at SUNY Geneseo, Jack Ceglarski played two years of professional hockey in 2017 and 2018. The hockey forward played for the Reading Royals (ECHL), Indy Fuel (ECHL) and the Huntsville Havoc (SPHL). 

What Ceglarski had to say: “Getting the opportunity to continue playing hockey after I graduated college was something I always wanted to try. Not many people get the opportunity to do that and I felt I had to give it a chance. I couldn’t be happier that I chose to do that. I was able to meet a lot of good buddies that I remain in touch with. I was fortunate enough to be on an unbelievable team in Huntsville, Texas, that ended up winning the championship. When you win a championship, you always cherish those moments and the people you go to work/rink with every day. One of the biggest takeaways from playing professionally was that professional sports quickly becomes a business. That was a hard adjustment coming from college since players can be traded or released at any moment. Luckily, the teammates I had made that adjustment for me easier than what others must face.”

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Andrew Johnson — Head Coach, Men’s & Women’s Nordic Skiing — Two-Time Nordic Ski Olympian  

Johnson (center) races in the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake. The Middlebury coach would go on to finish 22nd overall in the race. Courtesy Photo

A former student at Middlebury and Utah, Johnson is a three-time NCAA All-American, two-time U.S. Olympian (2002 and 2006), and nine-year member of the U.S. Ski Team (1999–2007). In 2005 and 2006, Johnson was the U.S. National Champion in nordic skiing. 

What Johnson had to say: “I feel very fortunate to have been able to pursue my childhood dream with such singular focus for so long, and even more fortunate for the experiences, connections and opportunities that I was able to take forward beyond my racing career. There were also a ton of disappointments and tough times along the way, and in retrospect it’s pretty clear that I didn’t always have the right tools to process those productively. Going through periods of poor racing results while spending 7+ months of the year on the road could be very challenging, lonesome and dispiriting. However, those experiences have been much more formative to my coaching career than any race I won or accolade I received and although miserable in the moment, very valuable in the bigger picture.”

Adam Luban — Assistant Coach, Men’s & Women’s Nordic Skiing — Member, Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation Gold

Adam Luban ’18 trained in a professional environment after graduating from Middlebury. Now, he’s the assistant coach of men’s and women’s nordic. Courtesy Photo

After Adam Luban ’18 concluded his four-year career on the Middlebury men’s nordic team, he joined the Sun Valley Ski Education and Foundation Gold Team in Idaho where he competed in domestic and international ski races. Luban’s goal was to qualify for the Olympics, but in 2019, he returned to Middlebury to coach. 

What Luban had to say: “My favorite aspect of skiing professionally was being able to fully dedicate myself to training and challenging myself to improve as a skier. I enjoyed traveling to a variety of venues across the U.S. and Canada to train and race and appreciated the greater opportunities and financial rewards professional racing offered. However, I missed the shared experience of striving for and reaching collective goals that made my time as an athlete on the Middlebury ski team so special.”

Greg Conrad — Assistant Coach, Men’s Soccer — Pro Soccer Player in Iceland and Germany 

Greg Conrad ’17 fights for position with an opponent while playing professional soccer. Courtesy Photo

Greg Conrad ’17 was a two-sport varsity athlete while a student at Middlebury, playing soccer and hockey. That’s not a typical combination, but to be fair, Conrad was anything but typical as an athlete. Boasting impressive size and strength, the soccer forward bullied opponents in the NESCAC as a player. After graduating in 2017, Conrad trialed with Vikingur Reykjavik, a top-league soccer team in Iceland. From there, Conrad played with UMF Afturelding and UMF Tindastoll in Icelandic Deild 2 and DJK Tus Hordel of Westfalenliga in Germany.
What Conrad had to say: “My biggest takeaway from my time overseas was learning the importance of staying grounded in constantly changing environments. Whether it was ups and downs in my on-field performance, team/staff changes or upcoming transfer windows, I could only control what was directly in front of me in the present moment. As far as challenges, learning to play the game in new languages (Icelandic and German) was much more difficult than anticipated.”

Mark Lewis — Head Coach, Men’s & Women’s Squash — U.S. Olympic Committee Athlete of the Year (Squash)

Mark Lewis had a long, successful career as a pro squash player. Between 1995 and 2002, he was on the Pro Squash Association World Tour, once ranking in the top five in the United States. Lewis represented Team USA at the Pan American Federation Championships in Colombia and Mexico and was once named U.S. Olympic Committee Athlete of the Year. 

What Lewis had to say: “I will start with my love of competition and that I was very fortunate to have competed against and with some great players. The takeaways were: the relationships built over time with my fellow competitors (many of whom are now coaches) and traveling to different countries especially Mexico and Colombia to represent the U.S. Perhaps my biggest struggle was that when I started my career playing professionally I was relatively old. I took my first steps at learning the game from English master coach David Pearson in Harrogate, England, at 25 years old. The challenge of starting late was not having developed much skill in my early days. I compensated for my lack of skill by working hard at my fitness and my mental game. This work culminated in being the runner up in the Men’s Senior National Championships in 1998. As a former junior national coach again the travel was incredibly fun and enlightening. Coaching the U.S. Men’s junior national team at the Men’s Junior World Championships was memorable for the squash that was played and experience of working with the best juniors in the U.S., one of whom went on to win nine Men’s senior national championships.  In all, my path to Middlebury has taken me to some special places where I have met and created many life-long relationships that influence me to this day.”

David Cromwell  — Assistant Coach, Men’s & Women’s Squash — Member, Pro Squash Association 

David Cromwell ’16 went from a walk-on at Middlebury to a professional squash player. Courtesy Photo

After a successful squash career at Middlebury, David Cromwell ’16 joined the Pro Squash Association where he earned a world ranking of No. 161. His time as a professional took him across the world, with the now-assistant coach playing and living in England at one point. 

What Cromwell had to say: “Playing professionally was a challenging and amazing experience I wouldn't trade. I enjoyed getting to know and learn from a variety of knowledgeable and experienced coaches. The learning and the problem solving aspect involved in bringing out your best as an athlete and performer is probably my favorite part. It's often about finding the thing that unlocks the other things, and that process can be very nonlinear. One of the most challenging parts of the experience was living a lifestyle that was so different from many of my peers. Also, not being a part of a team like at Midd was a tough adjustment. You have to kind of craft your own team and really know what you're going for and why. I struggled with that for sure. I have a lot of takeaways. I'd say controlling the controllables is talked about a lot but uncontrolling the uncontrollables is just as important.”

Bob Hansen — Associate Head Coach, Men’s Tennis — Northern California’s Open Player of the Year

Bob Hansen was consistently a top-ranked tennis player in the 1970s, once named Northern California’s Open Player of the Year. Hansen used to play in the international circuit, earning wins against renowned professionals such as Brad Gilbert and Paul McNamee. The associate head coach at Middlebury also won the USTA 40 National Grass Court Championships in Santa Barbara, California. 

Mark Sienko — Assistant Coach, Women’s Soccer — Former Pro Soccer Player in Poland

After graduating from high school in Vermont, Mark Sienko trained with Coleraine FC, a semi-pro club in Northern Ireland. After a successful stint there, Sienko played professionally in Poland for Stal Rzeszow. After his time abroad, Sienko enrolled as a student at the University of Vermont and played club soccer.

Jorge Rojas — Assistant Coach, Women’s Soccer — Former Pro Soccer Player in Chile and United States

Jorge Rojas, assistant coach of women’s soccer, played professional soccer in several countries. Both an indoor and outdoor soccer player, Rojas played on teams such as Everton (Chile) and The Amarillo Challengers (Texas). 

Blaise Siefer

Blaise Siefer ‘23.5 is a sports staff writer.

Siefer is majoring in Sociology and minoring in Spanish.

For three semesters in 2021 and 2022, Siefer served as Senior Sports Editor. He also co-founded a Middlebury sports recap podcast, PFL Weekly, which is released on all major streaming platforms every Tuesday. 

Siefer is also the Co-Founder and Co-President of Middlebury Club Soccer.