Claire Roche ’22, Katie Hendry ’22, and Alice Morrison ’24 built a friendship through athletics, and credit their coach, Nancy Zurn Bernardini, with creating a welcoming culture that helped them find their place at George School both on and off the field.
“I have known Nancy and her family for a long time,” said Claire. “Nancy’s husband was my 7th grade teacher. When I came to George School and found out that Nancy was going to be my field hockey coach, I knew that she was going to be super caring. The kindness that I expected was solidified once I got to know her as my coach.”
Alice met Nancy at a lacrosse tournament here at George School when she was in 8th grade. “Nancy immediately made me feel welcome,” said Alice. You can see and hear the passion she has for the sport of lacrosse and her players. It is what influenced my decision to come to George School. Nancy remembers every player and seeing the personal connection she makes with her players and the impact she has on people is amazing.”
Before coming to George School, Katie played field hockey, but not seriously enough to put her at a higher level. During her freshman year on the JV team, she could genuinely see how much Nancy cared about everyone’s experience—not just the varsity team. “She stays for every single JV game and is invested in every single player,” said Katie. “Nancy has such a powerful presence and students have a deep respect for her because of how much respect Nancy shows to the people around her.”
When the students were asked how they became friends, Claire responded, “Katie and I met during the Academic Summer Program, and we met Alice through field hockey during the COVID-19 season. We have all stayed friends since. It has been hard with COVID-19 to make connections, but the environment Nancy created helped make it possible.”
Athletics is a core component of the George School experience. Every student must fulfill a sports requirement. “I would not really consider myself an athletic person,” shared Katie. “Seeing the way Nancy treats her varsity squad really motivated me to strive to get better for myself and my teammates. I played lacrosse my freshman year because it was another team coached by Nancy. I made varsity hockey with Claire during my sophomore year. Even if I was not the best player on the field, Nancy treated me the same as she did her star players. She makes sure everyone gets time in the games and if I was having an issue, she was there to support me. This season, Claire and I were nominated as captains, which made the experience even better. It was amazing that I had the opportunity to be a role model for my teammates.”
“Being a part of a team is something very special at George School,” added Claire. “It doesn’t matter if we lost a game or had to deal with a frustrating team, we would always end the game in high spirits. On the bus ride home, we would always be singing and laughing. Nancy is an extremely supportive coach and created a positive dynamic, which I know will carry on despite her retiring because she instilled so much of this in every single member of the team.”
“I have never been the best player on the field, but sports have always been an outlet for me,” said Alice. “I have been on teams where coaches and other players have changed the dynamic and it has had a drastic effect on me when I cannot use sports as an escape. The environment that Nancy created at George School and for us has been exactly the sports environment that I needed. Last year, we had a difficult season because of COVID-19. We had a limited number of games, had to play in masks, and no one had played in a long time. Even though we did not win many games, we always found something good to say about each player after every game and the bus rides back were always high energy. It meant so much to me that the captains and Nancy were able to keep the team bond strong during the pandemic.”
When asked to reflect on how much Nancy has meant to them, each of the three athletes had something special to say.
“It is insane to think about the impact Nancy has had on her students,” said Katie. “There are so many people doing amazing things all over the world who will always remember Nancy as someone important in their life. Personally, she has taught me many valuable and unforgettable lessons. She has taught me a lot about community, being transparent with people that you are working with, to lean into times where I feel uncomfortable, and to embrace tough situations by relying on others.”
“I think about how Nancy is able to go beyond sports,” said Alice. “Every game and practice, she puts in a lot of effort to tie the lessons on the field to life. I will always remember her talking about how important it is to communicate on defense or on attack, explaining where people need to go and coordinating with your teammates and equating that to being a woman and finding your voice—whether that is in the classroom today or in the workplace years from now. As women, we have all had experiences where we did not feel comfortable sharing our thoughts or feeling like the smallest person in the room. Nancy’s ability to take something that makes sense to us like a field hockey play and relating that to a much more complex issue really inspires me. I could attend a lacrosse clinic in New Jersey and tell someone that I go to George School, and they always know Nancy. Nancy has so much respect in the lacrosse and field hockey community.”
After taking a moment to pause, Claire said, “Nancy is someone I have always looked up to. This year, at the end of the season, Nancy came up to me and said ‘Claire, you are going to go so far in your life.’ That had such an impact on me. She makes sure that she knows everyone’s name and takes the time to make everyone feel important. The senior gifts are also something I will always remember. Nancy makes each gift individual and personal each year, an example of how much she cares about us. I have so much love for Nancy and want the best for her in this next chapter.”
Katie shared that Nancy throws a “killer Easter egg hunt.” “Nancy spends the entire week prior to the practice right before Easter stuffing hundreds of Easter eggs that have little treats and numbered pieces of paper in them,” explained Katie. “Each number is associated with a small gift that she gives out. You can tell how much she cares because of how much effort she puts into making us feel special. This has nothing to do with lacrosse, but she is always so happy to provide us with these experiences. I am glad she got to do the Easter egg hunt one last time before retiring.”
“Nancy has the most radiant smile,” continued Claire. “If we score a goal, she is smiling. If we do not score a goal, she is smiling. She is always trying to find the positives in every moment. If someone is having a hard day, she goes up and tries to make you feel better.”
“It is amazing to see other teams honoring Nancy when we go to their fields,” said Katie. “What other teams do that? To have another team, at their home fields, bring flowers for our coach, speaks to what she has done for so many people.”
“When this does happen, you can tell how appreciative Nancy feels, but then immediately tries to bring it back to us and always make it about the team,” added Alice. “I remember that during the last game with Moorestown [Friends], they honored her and gave her flowers and in the team huddle, Nancy looked at the flowers and apologized that she did not mean to make it about her, put the flowers on the bleachers, and went right into talking about the lineup and game. It was meant to be about Nancy, but she wanted to make it about the team which is always in the forefront of her mind. She wanted us to have a good game and to enjoy ourselves, not have the attention on her.”
Claire, Katie, and Alice represent the hundreds of students, from 1978 to present, that Nancy Zurn Bernardini has coached and whose lives have been changed through her dedication and mindset. George School has been fortunate to have such an impactful coach, teacher, and friend dedicate her career to our students. Congratulations, Nancy, and best of luck with your next adventure!