DURHAM, N.C. – Bria Irizarry is in her first season directing the Duke defense after joining head coach Kerstin Kimel, associate head coach Lauren Morton and volunteer assistant coach Morgan Heisman on the Blue Devil coaching staff this summer. Irizarry came to Durham from Army West Point, where she was an assistant coach alongside head coach and former Blue Devil Kristen Waagbo.
Irizarry recently sat down to talk about settling in to Durham and to share her coaching background and philosophy.
GoDuke.com: Take us through your coaching philosophy, particularly on defense.
Bria Irizarry: Over the past couple years, I’ve learned how important it is to break down the basics when it comes to teaching defense. If you can rely on strong footwork and a base knowledge of how to defend certain scoring threats, that’s a super positive. I also like to try to put the defensive unit into pressure situations that work on not only their physical game, but also their mental game. Just to be able to put them in situations they may experience in games and allowing them to feel a little bit more prepared is something I’ve found to be beneficial. I’m also a huge proponent of controlling the “controllables.” Controlling your attitude, effort and communication can go a really long way, especially when you’re working as a cohesive unit down in the defensive end.
On a personal note, I’m a more positive coach. I like to bring the same amount of effort, emotion and energy that I expect out of my players every day.
GoDuke.com: Did coaching alongside former Blue Devil player and coach Kristen Waagbo at Army West Point help ease your transition to the Duke program?
BI: Coming from a place like Duke that is so rich in tradition, it was cool for Kristen to bring some of those traditions and coaching philosophies that she learned from Duke up to Army. Being able to create our own traditions up there and working with a brand new program, having to teach fundamentals like stick work and footwork was something we felt we were going to put a huge emphasis on right away. Honing in on those individual skills and making those really strong, we could then build on the individual strengths and grow the team into more conceptual stuff later on.
Something I learned at Army pretty quickly that I think is unique is how much our cadet-athletes put the team before themselves, both off the lacrosse field and out in the field. The team as a whole was going to benefit from them caring for one another and showing that care on a consistent basis. That was probably something she brought from Duke as well.
GoDuke.com: Can you talk about your relationship with Coach Waagbo?
BI: I am extremely fortunate to have Kristen as a role model in my life. I watched her play as a middle schooler when she was in high school, which was fun for me. Something she instilled in me was her passion. She wanted every practice to be fun and creative, yet productive. I think she consistently showed a compassion for her team at Army and really challenged them to define their own legacy as a new Division I program. So as a coach, I try to always have our players’ best interests in mind as well and to, again, show that passion every single day for our players.
GoDuke.com: With several years of coaching under your belt, what do you feel you are bringing to Duke from your past experiences?
BI: Another thing I’ve learned is that each individual player has her own learning style. You’re trying to cater to those styles, whether it’s additional on-field work with them, or watching film or even just talking through Xs and Ox. It’s trying to hone in on what each player needs and really trying to hit all facets of that when you’re coaching out on the field.
From my previous experiences, I’ve found that fostering relationships with my players off the field allows me to have serious conversations with them on the field. Really building that trust on and off the field allows for a more personal experience, but also one in which we can have serious conversations that will help them grow as people as well as lacrosse players.
GoDuke.com: Can you talk about your early days of playing lacrosse and how you got into the sport?
BI: I started playing lacrosse in third grade. Growing up in Baltimore, it was the thing to do. It seemed like a fun game. It was fast, it was competitive. I liked how quick it was and I was very fortunate to have a strong high school program in my area. So from a young age, I was able to watch pretty high-level lacrosse. The teams that came before me in high school set a really high standard and they were so successful. It was something I always wanted to be a part of when I got to high school. So that fueled my motivation as a young lacrosse player.
GoDuke.com: At what point did you decide to get into the coaching profession?
BI: I think I knew near the end of my collegiate career I really didn’t want lacrosse to end for me. Lacrosse had such a huge impact on my life – provided me with opportunities I probably would not have had as a player, both in terms of competing in college and going to a great university and having lacrosse take me to different countries to help grow the game. I felt fortunate for this sport to be a part of my life, and I wanted to continue to give back.
My high school coach was an amazing role model and always taught us to care about the success of our team versus ourselves as individuals. No matter the opponent, she always taught us to focus on us and what we could do to be better as a unit. I just really liked the camaraderie in lacrosse and being on a coaching staff that works together to attain that ultimate goal of potentially winning a national championship and that challenge.
GoDuke.com: What are some of your takeaways from your first fall with the Blue Devils?
BI: It’s been so fun getting to know them all and to be able to work alongside Kerstin, Lauren and Morgan. They’re a phenomenal staff. Duke is the type of place that people are really passionate about, and it’s easy to come to work every day when everyone around you is striving for excellence and wanting to be the best. That includes our student-athletes. They’re smart – they really are sponges. And they’re so coachable, which makes our lives really fun because it allows us to come up with more innovative drills and creative ways to teach and to play the game. So far it’s been an amazing experience. I’m really looking forward to these next couple months and getting into the spring season.
GoDuke.com: What are some goals you have for your first season at Duke?
BI: My goal for our defensive unit is to really earn a reputation of being tough and super aggressive, and a unit that our opponents really despise playing against. I also want us to be adaptable – to be able to shut down various types of scoring threats. And I would like for us to challenge our opponents to have to come up with a plan B or a plan C to get by us as a defensive unit. I really try to hone in on doing all the little things right so we have success as a unit and to really help our defense recognize that if we do all those little things right, it allows us to generate more offense and provide us with more opportunities on the offensive end. It’s more of a mentality, but if we can be really prideful and really aggressive, I think our opponents are going to have a tough time against us.
Favorite athlete: Shane Battier just because he was such a strong defensive standout and he always showed outstanding leadership.
Favorite book: Toughness by Jay Bilas
Favorite movie: Forrest Gump
Favorite TV show: This is Us
Favorite musician: Zac Brown Band
Favorite food: Fish tacos
Best thing you’ve done since moving to Durham: I recently went to a Zac Brown Band concert in Raleigh. And just experimenting with all the food here, being able to go bunch of different restaurants that the staff has told me about.
Best place lacrosse has taken you: Definitely Australia. I was over there for a whole summer in between my junior and senior year of college. I got to compete with a team over there because their lacrosse season is actually April to September. I was able to coach two teams and volunteer at an all-girls private school, and I lived with a host family who I actually still keep in touch with. When I was coaching at George Washington, we actually brought our team over there. I was able to reconnect with my family and travel a bunch.