By Bill McLean
ILLUSTRATION BY BARRY BLITT
By Bill McLean
ILLUSTRATION BY BARRY BLITT
As a New Trier Township High School (NTHS) freshman in 1979, Stephanie Nykaza, nee Allans, made the junior varsity girls’ tennis team. That was no small feat in sneakers.
A JV netter at NTHS—packed perennially with ace players, then and now—could rout varsity members of tennis teams at most other schools.
“I liked tennis,” Nykaza, a Winnetka native, recalls. “But I wasn’t sure I would end up loving it.”
Such uncertainty lingered until the end of the summer before the start of her sophomore year. Many of Nykaza’s tennis peers had worked harder than she had to reach a higher level in the offseason.
“It showed, clearly, that I had not put in the time on the court necessary to deserve a spot on the team,” Nykaza says. “I got cut.
“My parents (the late Steve and Mary Allans) then told me, ‘Find another sport.’”
The young Stephanie discovered field hockey and ran with it for virtually the next four decades. The sport lifted her confidence, shaped her identity, and allowed her to repay it and positively impact hundreds of athletes via a highly successful coaching career. Nykaza (NTHS, Class of 1983) battled at the attack position in high school and then competed as a defender and midfielder at Michigan State University, where she served the Spartans as a captain.
New Trier had captured two field hockey state championships in program history when she was hired to helm the varsity squad at her alma mater 35 years ago. Nykaza guided Trevians to a state title in her second season and led teams to 13 more Illinois titles, including the last four.
Also a kinetic wellness teacher at NTHS, Nykaza, 58, plans to retire from coaching and teaching after the 2023-2024 school year.
“I’ve told my field hockey players about what happened to me in tennis all those years ago,” says Nykaza, who was also a speedy outfielder on NT softball teams. “I wasn’t always successful in sports, and, in my case, there was a reason for that. You have to be all in, full throttle, in the sport you’re playing. I firmly believe you have to go hard and go big if you’re at all interested in becoming the best athlete you can be.
“As a field hockey coach,” she adds, “one of my main responsibilities is to help create excitement for the sport at New Trier. I’ve been able to do that from the beginning, with the help of my staff and the constant support of New Trier. Leaders are only good leaders when they have great assistants (and underlevel coaches); I’ve always had those at New Trier.”
Nykaza’s 2023 staff comprises Brittany Romano, Saleema Rogers, DeDe Kerr, Deb Kind, Tania Bouwman, and Jan Douaire.
“When all of us show how much we care as coaches, our players play their hearts out for the program in practice and in games,” says Nykaza, whose final NTHS field hockey crew was scheduled to open its season at Oak Park and River Forest High School on August 24.
Nykaza studied Cardiac Prevention and Rehabilitation at the University of Illinois Chicago and landed jobs in the field of corporate fitness and stress management. She found time as a young adult to compete for a Chicago-based field hockey club, run field hockey clinics, and coach at field hockey camps.
“Field hockey,” Nykaza says, “always loomed.”
After New Trier tapped Nykaza to take over as head field hockey coach, the least surprised people along the North Shore were Stephanie’s parents.
“Mom and Dad liked to tell me, ‘You’d be a natural as a coach,’” Nykaza remembers. “I was a hardcore coach in my early years at New Trier, and I could keep up with my players on the field. I was intense. I had passion. I found out my players gravitated to my passion for field hockey. I might come across as rigid at first, but people eventually find out that I’m a big softie inside. The more I coached, the more I realized, ‘This is my calling.’ I love working with, and motivating, teenagers.
“Coaching filled me.”
Nykaza’s mentor and longtime friend is Barb Liles, who retired in 2007 after 29 years of coaching field hockey at OPRF HS. Liles co-founded Windy City Field Hockey Club in 1991. Nykaza was involved with Windy City—the Chicago area’s oldest and largest club—and USA Field Hockey, the sport’s national governing body and a member organization of the United States Olympic Committee and the International Hockey Federation.
Stephanie and New Trier alumnus Michael Nykaza, an attorney, got married 32 years ago. They raised future New Trier graduates Nick, a 31-year-old Chicago attorney, and Kristen, a 26-year-old who works as a nurse in Milwaukee.
Stephanie Nykaza enjoys paddle boarding, wakesurfing, kayaking, biking, snow and cross-country skiing, working out regularly, and golfing. There’s no telling how many more “ing” activities she’ll add to her crowded recreation plate after her final day at NTHS.
“Could I coach New Trier field hockey for one more season?” Nykaza says. “Probably. I still have the passion. The fire in my belly is still burning. And I’ll always bleed New Trier blue and green. But I want to retire fresh, not as some old coach with outdated ways of running things.
“It’ll be nice, not being on a bell schedule as an educator, and I’ll get to sleep more,” she adds.
Folks have told Nykaza that winning her 15th state championship near Halloween this fall would be a scary-good—and perfect—way to end her decorated coaching career at New Trier.
“That would be a nice way to go out, but perfect?” Nykaza says. “Okay, maybe. But I’d also consider a loss in the state championship game to be a part of a perfect season, as long as the girls had experienced the highs and lows of the season and learned a lot about themselves during the journey. You know, you can lose a tough game and still be proud of the way you played.”