Nicole Flores’ first taste of head coaching was an absolute crash course.
The former women’s lacrosse standout at Division III Springfield (Mass.) College decided to enter the coaching profession after it was suggested by friend Alice Lee, who’s now the women’s lacrosse coach at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass.
Flores was, at the time, applying for teaching jobs, but she followed Lee’s advice. That led her to an interview with Christine Hutchinson at Division III Eastern Connecticut State, to be a part-time assistant coach on her staff.
Flores was hired a couple days later. But then Hutchinson went on maternity leave. And Flores, the only other coach on staff, was handed the keys to the program during fall practices.
“She was like, ‘Here’s a whistle. The team’s yours, get after it,’” Flores said. “And I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ ”
At night, Flores would stay up writing practice plans, hoping she was doing a good job. Thrown in the fire, that beginning set roots for a collegiate coaching career that has now spanned 12 years.
And, on Friday morning, Flores’ first official head coaching job was announced — at VCU. The Branford, Conn., native will step in as just the program’s second-ever head coach, replacing Jen O’Brien, whose contract was not renewed this spring.
She arrives after two years as an assistant coach at Stanford. The support she saw put toward women’s lacrosse by VCU athletics administration was undeniable, she said.
“I couldn’t pass that opportunity up,” Flores said. “The more I thought about it and the more I read things over, I was like, ‘Wow, this is something special.’ ”
Flores, at Springfield, was a team captain and, as a senior, an all-New England Men’s and Women’s Athletic Conference first-team pick before graduating in 2009. She began her career as a goalkeeper before shifting to defender and attacker.
She had played since she was in middle school. But the crash course she got at the beginning of her time as a coach at Eastern Connecticut State showed Flores how much she had to learn.
“That made me want to speak out [to] other, established coaches and see what they were doing and how they were doing it,” Flores said. “I think that was the No. 1 learning lesson for me.”
From Eastern Connecticut State, Flores went to serve as an assistant coach at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., from 2011-14, before two years at Bowdoin College (Brunswick, Maine), including a run to the Division III Sweet 16 in 2015.
In 2017, Flores was an assistant at Trinity College (Hartford, Conn.), helping the Bantams to the Division III Final Four.
Then came the start of a stint with coach Danielle Spencer for two years at Dartmouth and then at Stanford, which Flores described as the most influential of her career.
Flores described Spencer as an “absolute force.”
“She’s just an absolute beast when it comes to being the best coach and never being satisfied,” Flores said.
Dartmouth went 22-11 over the two years Flores and Spencer were there, and won the 2019 Ivy League regular-season title. Spencer was hired by Stanford in 2019, and Flores joined her.
After the pandemic-shortened 2020, the Cardinal went 11-0 overall and 7-0 in Pac-12 play this year, winning the league tournament title before falling to Denver in the NCAA tournament.
Among the most important things Flores said she learned from Spencer was how to manage a team.
“How to motivate, how to set expectations and how to just show what hard work looks like by doing it yourself, before expecting it from others,” Flores said.
Coming off some reflection last year, Flores felt it was time to seek her own head coaching job.
VCU was in search, starting this past April. The Rams’ women’s lacrosse program has only played at an intercollegiate level since 2016, and O’Brien built it from that point. But the progress wasn’t continuing in a way deemed satisfactory. O’Brien finished with a 34-59 record in her six seasons.
The fact that Flores came from winning programs was one thing that stood out to VCU vice president and director of athletics Ed McLaughlin.
“Different places, different schools, different levels, she’s been a winner,” McLaughlin said. “So we want to make sure we have someone who can get our program to win an A-10 championship and make the NCAA tournament.”
Likewise, Flores said her vision is to be a championship-caliber team.
Flores is already entrenched into recruiting season, speaking in a Friday afternoon interview after leaving the girls high school lacrosse national championship in Farmington, Conn. The work on campus will start officially later this summer, with fall-semester practices.
She’s looking forward to taking the reins, and this time she’s ready for it.
“I’m just extremely grateful, excited, humbled and just ready to get to work,” Flores said.