Written by sports information director, Adam Levin '94.
As hard as it is to imagine the first four decades of Brandeis women's soccer without Denise Dallamora as head coach, just one or two decisions early on could have set her on a different path.
Dallamora might have been steered towards field hockey or softball, her primary sports growing up in Framingham, Massachusetts, before soccer's current popularity boom. Or she might have gone into athletic training, which was her field of study at Northeastern University. She was first hired at Brandeis by the athletic director at the time, Nick Rodis, as an athletic trainer.
"I always knew I wanted to go into coaching, though," Dallamora said. "It just seemed to me that athletic training had a bigger pool of jobs available for me after graduating."
From that first part-time position in 1979, Rodis learned that the club women's soccer team was interested in achieving varsity status. When he asked Dallamora if she wanted the job coaching the team on a full-time basis in 1980, she jumped at the chance. "I didn't know if they were ready, but I was ready to be a coach," she said. Dallamora never looked back.
She has experienced great strides in women's sports, from priorities on the field to the size of the recruiting budget to the advocacy for and by coaches.
Though Title IX was passed in 1972, it took time for the law's roots to take hold. "I remember when the women's team always had to wait for the men to finish their practice to get started. Thanks to Title IX, we have the same opportunities as the men's teams."
Dallamora was able to build a successful program fairly quickly. The Judges posted their first winning season five years into her tenure and went 11-3-2 and reached the ECAC tournament in year six. In 1988, the Judges, boasting three future All-Americans and Hall of Famers, became the first Brandeis women's team to reach the NCAA tournament. She credits the success to her ability to recruit.
"My first year, it was a team of walk-ons, and there was virtually no recruiting budget," she recalled. "Year after year, the recruiting money got better and better. And then we joined the UAA, recruiting budgets really went up, and I was able to go and find players.
"Building the Gosman [Sports and Convocation] Center was huge too. Now we could practice outside of the small window that was set aside. But I think the biggest thing that has helped recruiting was developing a culture in our program that promoted excellence."
Dallamora instituted a culture where players didn't just display skill and talent on the field. How well their personality meshed with the rest of the roster mattered as well. The players were expected to take responsibility for their actions, which in turn gave them responsibility for their success.
"Women started having more of a passion for the sport," Dallamora said. "So I wanted them to follow through with that - to push each other and be the best that we could be, win or lose. We talked about those expectations, and wrote them down and made people accountable. If there were problems, we dealt with them out in the open."
Once her teams became successful, winning bred more winning. After the 1988 team's success, the Judges made the ECAC tournament three times in the 1990s. In the early 2000s, however, the program really took off. Between 2003 and 2019, Brandeis made the postseason 15 times in that 17-year span. They made seven-straight ECAC tournaments starting in 2003, winning back-to-back crowns in 2007 and 2008. In 2010, they returned to the NCAA tournament for the first time since '88. After a brief post-seasonless hiccup in 2011, the Judge went on a run of seven-straight NCAA tournament berths, winning at least one tourney match in six of those years. The highlight of that NCAA tournament run came in 2016, when the Judges made their first Final Four appearance.
"After making it with the 1988 team, that Final Four year is one of my favorite memories," Dallamora said. "The way we made it [defeating top-ranked William Smith, 4-3, in overtime, after trailing, 2-0 late in the second half] and going with the men's team. It was a great group of players with a great work ethic, who really deserved to be there."
That year, Dallamora was named the United Soccer Coaches - then known as the National Soccer Coaches Association of America - NCAA Division III Coach of the Year. It was one of the ultimate honors from a group that she had given much to over the years.
Dallamora served as the organization's first board member to represent the women's game. It was an undefined role at the time, giving her the opportunity to make of it what she wanted. What she wanted was a chance to bridge older and new generations of soccer players as women became more and more involved in the sport. The organization has honored her with a women's committee Award of Excellence and in 2019 established the Denise Dallamora Fund to help sponsor women's coaches to attend future United Soccer Coaches conventions.
"I've always felt that my role was as a mentor, especially to women," Dallamora said. "If you don't give women the breaks, they aren't going to get them."
By empowering women coaches, she has seen several former assistant coaches become successful head coaches at various levels, including her successor, Mary Shimko '14. Shimko took over for Dallamora during the pandemic after three seasons as an assistant coach.
"After my sophomore year, I saw the impact that a female coach could make on young women, and especially the impact that Denise made on me," Shimko said. "That inspired me to pursue coaching. I hope I can continue her legacy by building a program with a strong culture of trust and communication, where we bring in not just great players, but great people."