Strong Women and Championships: The Future of University Athletics as Told By Its Female Head Coaches

Mai-Ly Tran, Keeley Hagen, Laura Cilek, and Jen Fisher on stage during a Woman and Philanthropy event
Mai-Ly Tran(tennis), Keeley Hagen (soccer), Laura Cilek (tennis), and Jen Fisher (softball) discussed the future of CSU athletics during a Woman and Philanthropy event in March.

As institutions of higher education around the nation mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX, Colorado State University marked a significant milestone of its own: more women leading CSU athletics programs as head coaches than ever before. The four head coaches – Jen Fisher (softball), Laura Cilek (golf), Keeley Hagen (soccer), and Mai-Ly Tran (tennis) – shared their experiences leading student-athletes, working in college athletics, overcoming and removing barriers, and what the future of CSU’s female athletics looks like.

Jen Fisher, Softball

CSU’s longest-serving female head coach, Jen Fisher, has been a powerhouse of Rams athletics ever since she became CSU’s softball head coach in 2010. It’s been a personal journey for Fisher, who has helped guide her alma mater back to prominence in the Mountain West, culminating in the 2019 season.

Picked to finish seventh in the preseason poll, Colorado State posted a 39-12 overall record and 18-6 Mountain West mark to win its second Mountain West regular season title. With winning the league title, the Rams returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003. In the postseason, CSU won its first NCAA Tournament game since 1997 with a 6-0 win over Harvard in the Tucson Regional, and Fisher was named Mountain West Coach of the Year for the second time.

A former collegiate athlete herself, Fisher has a unique insight on female athletics at CSU and around the nation.

Softball Coach Jeni Fisher discusses the next play during a CSU softball game.
Even though she’s the coach, Jen Fisher said students are the real teachers on and off the field.

“I think several barriers have been lowered. I wouldn’t say taken down, but I think we’ve overcome a lot of stereotypes,” she said when asked what barriers have been removed in female athletics. “I think we’re also beginning to overcome the stereotype that women’s sports are uninteresting and therefore deserve less coverage.”

It’s hard to believe now, she added, but there was a time when it was almost universally believed that sports, and even exercise, were bad for women. That notion has been “shattered,” and she’s seen firsthand how women being involved in sports and a part of team adds to their mental, as well as physical, health.

“One thing I’ve noticed is a lot of inclusivity. We have students from all backgrounds, and when they get to be part of the team, they’re instant friends and really teach each other about their cultures,” she said. “That’s one of the most rewarding things for me as a coach to see. They’re teaching us.

And the significance of three other women head coaches isn’t lost on Fisher.

“I have people now who really understand me. People I can talk to and who understand. The room feels different,” she concluded.

Laura Cilek, Golf

In just four seasons, Laura Cilek has had a strong influence on women’s golf at CSU. In 2019, she led the Rams to their lowest round average in program history with a 292 mark. Colorado State also recorded its first tournament win with a four-under 860 at the Ron Moore Women’s Intercollegiate for the first time since 2010.

No stranger to competing in a sport overly dominated by men, Cilek finished as runner-up at the 2012 Iowa State Amateur and won the 2012 Iowa City Amateur. She qualified and played in the 2013 USGA Amateur Public Links, winning the Iowa Match Play championship. During her collegiate career at Iowa, Cilek was named Academic All-Big Ten in 2008, 2009, and 2010.

As both an athlete and as a coach, Cilek said she has been invigorated by the next generation of female student-athletes who are standing up to the status quo as never before.

Golf Coach Laura Cilek gives a golf player a pound.
Though there’s been progress, Golf Coach Laura Cilek (right) said there’s still a ways to go when it comes to making sports more equitable for women.

“The student-athletes are doing a better job of speaking out when they see something is not equal,” she said, specifically citing women athletes who called out leadership when they noticed inequities during March Madness in 2021. “They’re seeing what the men have and are pushing from their platforms to make it more equal. It’s really great that they feel like they have the power to do that and that someone is going to listen.”

Cilek herself doesn’t shy away from pointing out hypocrisies in her sport.

“In 2020, women were allowed to play on the Augusta National Course for the first time. It’s historically been a very exclusive club that didn’t allow women for a long time. And now, they’re hosting the Augusta Ladies Amateur Event,” she explained. “But we have a way to go because women play the course only on the last of the three days, which they don’t say in all the advertising.”

The energy of coaches and student-athletes standing up for what is right is inspiring, she added, and will make life, not just sports, more equal in the long run. And even though it may feel slow and gradual, she said, it’s work that needs to be committed to and done on a daily basis if any real progress is going to be made.

Keeley Hagen, Soccer

A three-time All-American and former professional soccer player with 14 years of assistant coaching experience at the Power-Five level, Keeley Hagen became head coach of CSU’s women’s soccer in 2021.

In her first season as head coach at CSU, Hagen led the Rams to a 6-8-3 record overall with a 5-5-1 Mountain West record to earn the fifth seed in the conference tournament during her first season. A program-best five straight wins were obtained in the season among a few other “firsts,” including the program’s first home win against Colorado College and a win on Senior Day.

Hagen played three seasons of professional soccer for Women’s Professional Soccer. In 2009, Hagen helped Sky Blue Football Club get the WPS title, scoring the eventual winning goal during a 1-0 semifinal victory. The effort earned the team an opportunity to visit the White House in the summer of 2010 to be honored by President Barack Obama.

Though she began her career long after the passage of Title IX, Hagen said strong women who came before her helped her understand how much she benefited from the legislation.

“I’m a great success story of Title IX because I didn’t really have the negative impacts that [Coach Jen Fisher] and others had. I didn’t know any different,” she explained. “We’ve had a ton of strong women who have just kept fighting for those opportunities for women from the beginning of Title IX.”

Hagen said she is proud to be part of a sport that has had such a vocal impact on closing the gender wage gap. In February, the U.S. Women’s National Team and the U.S. Soccer Federation reached a settlement agreement to make pay equal for women’s and men’s soccer. The lesson she’s learned from watching that unfold is the importance of building a coalition.

Soccer Coach Keeley Hagen pumps her athletes up.
Soccer Coach Keeley Hagen said she admires the women who helped fight for Title IX, and who continue the fight.

“It’s pretty impressive, the fight the young women put forth to get it to happen. It’s continuing [the idea] that it’s not OK that we’re still less in this area,” she said. “I think one or two people are the seeds that get it going, but you’ve really got to catch fire with a group of people.”

Helping her student-athletes succeed, she added, requires a similar line of thinking. It’s not just about focusing on a student’s athletics experience. It’s about the entire higher education journey.

“It’s about constantly providing opportunities for the services that make sure we’re treating the athlete and the student holistically,” she said. “We have to make sure, as coaches, we’re recognizing that and providing resources for them to be successful.”

And when it comes to what the future of CSU women’s athletics looks like, Hagen summed it up succinctly and emphatically.

“Strong women and championships,” she said.

Mai-Ly Tran, Tennis

Mai-Ly Tran is the newest arrival to Rams athletics, taking on the tennis head coach role in the summer of 2021. She is the second woman to guide the program and is coming off a successful five-year-run as Drake University’s head coach. As a player at Cal State Fullerton from 2004-2007, she garnered All-Big West second-team honors in doubles.

With such vast experience – as a player, a university coach, and a high school coach – Tran brings a unique perspective to tennis that, she said, was matched by CSU’s athletics leadership’s support of women’s athletics and women head coaches.

“What attracted me to CSU was the administration. Starting with Joe Parker [director of athletics], and Shalini [Shanker, senior associate A.D. for compliance], and Steve [Cottingham, deputy director of athletics], what their vision is for this program, that’s what I bought into,” she said. “It’s that support for women coaches and how much faith they have in us. Empowering student-athletes, women around us, and all of CSU.”

There is a lot to be hopeful for when it comes to tennis, she added. Though it’s taken time, her sport is now one of the closest when it comes to equal pay for women and men.

“I think that’s a great opportunity for women growing up in the sport,” she said.

Tennis Coach Mai-Ly Tran gives a player a high five during a match.
Tennis Coach Mai-Ly Tran said it’s important for athletes to see a female coach leading the team.

Even in her short tenure at CSU, Tran said she is incredibly inspired by her student-athletes and feels immense support from the other head coaches at CSU.

“The student-athletes we get to work with, each day I think I’m so lucky to have a role in their journey. Every single day, I’m just so amazed at what they’re going to end up doing,” she said. “I’m the newest coach here, and I’ve never met such powerful women coaches who came and supported me from the very beginning. I’m so excited about what this athletics program is capable of.”

It may be adding pressure to an already stressful career position, but Tran said it’s important that her student-athletes see a woman head coach. It took a while for Tran to realize that was something she could attain, and she hopes to serve as a reminder that becoming a head coach is entirely possible.

“I never had any female coaches growing up at any level. I didn’t know what that looked like. What’s important for me today is to be able to sit in this position and have somebody else see me and say, ‘I can do that,’” she concluded. “I feel lucky to be in this position.”