Breaking into an open field.By
Breaking into an open field
By Stu Durando
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
The focus intensified when the assistant coach was left alone to run drills for a group of incoming freshmen at Affton High.
But before anyone could question her presence, Kozlen broke the team into groups and began tapping into seven years of experience as a player who followed family tradition by becoming a linebacker. Then a football coach.
“A few of the players were like, ‘Yeah, it’s kind of weird,’” said lineman Justin Nixon. “But after that day, everyone thought she was a good coach.”
Kozlen, 30, has long been immersed in football as a player for the St. Louis Slam and a coach at the middle-school level. This season she broke a barrier few females have approached, coaching linebackers and offensive linemen for the Affton freshman team.
She expected to catch some flak along the way, but thus far the closest thing to an insult came from a referee who unwittingly asked if she was a trainer.
“I was completely expecting something (negative), whether from fans, parents or the varsity guys,” she said. “But I haven’t heard anything at all. Mostly it’s been positive stuff, even from the players. The coaches have all accepted me.”
The move was unusual at a time when it remains uncommon for women to coach boys high school sports. The Missouri Football Coaches Association does not have any female members, according to president Brent Eckley, who said he was unaware of any women previously coaching football in Missouri.
But if it was a controversial move, Affton varsity coach Dan Oliver, who hired Kozlen, hasn’t heard about it.
“She has a pretty good knowledge of the game and knows how to coach and it seemed like a good fit,” he said. “The gender issue wasn’t any part of the equation. We needed a good coach to take care of the kids and teach them the right things.”
An offer to join the Affton staff came out of the blue during the summer while Kozlen was playing her seventh season for the Slam of the Women’s Football Alliance.
A position opened late, and she was recommended by an Affton assistant. Within a week she had been hired.
Kozlen also is in her third year working with a middle-school team in the Hazelwood area. She previously coached AAU boys basketball in the city.
After a short time at Affton, she said she can envision moving up the ladder if opportunities become available. Oliver said he fills openings on the varsity based on seniority within the program.
“She’s got two or three in front of her,” he said. “But if it came down to it and she was the person there and available and willing to do it, I don’t think I’d have any qualms asking her to come up.”
Kozlen grew up in a family where the men typically became linebackers at the high school or college level. After playing soccer, softball and basketball at Bishop DuBourg and Fox and soccer at Central Missouri State, she was at a park one day when tryouts were being held for the Slam.
She has been a key member of the team ever since. In August she was named MVP of the league championship game. During the playoffs, she invited Affton players and coaches to attend a game.
“When I came back they were saying, ‘Coach, that was cool. You were pretty good,’ ” she said. “So, it was nice for them to see me play so they know I can put my pads on too and run right there with them.”
When Kozlen isn’t teaching at Monroe Elementary in St. Louis, she is frequently focused on football. She races to practice at Affton after teaching and then heads to Hazelwood for practice.
Her weeks typically include coaching an Affton game on Thursday, scouting a varsity game on Friday and coaching a Hazelwood game on Saturday. She also is an assistant for the Affton girls basketball team in the winter.
Nixon and teammate Scott Schroer said there were some minor internal rumblings when Kozlen started, but they are convinced of her ability. Especially Schroer, who didn’t know what to think when he received early notice of Kozlen’s hiring from Oliver. Now he credits the new coach with his early progress this season.
“I was shocked because I’ve never had a woman coach,” Schroer said. “But she knows a lot. She’s the most knowledgeable linebacker coach I’ve ever talked to. With her, the little things add up.”
And that’s the kind of feedback that makes Kozlen think that she might have a future coaching football.
“Technically it’s a man’s sport that most females don’t play,” she said. “I would love to move up someday. But right now it’s baby steps.”