There are several pictures on a shelf in Maryland women’s soccer coach Ray Leone’s office. Some of the shots include Leone with American soccer legend Landon Donovan and his daughter with Premier League great Kolo Toure.
On the wall opposite that shelf is a Maryland scarf from The Crew. It hangs alone.
Leone has traversed the U.S college soccer landscape, starting out as a head coach at Berry College in Georgia, making his way through Creighton, Clemson, Arizona State and Harvard before settling with the Terps early last year.
A native of nearby Severna Park, Leone played soccer at Severna Park High School before embarking on his 31-year coaching journey around the country. Now he’s back in Maryland, the place he always wanted to be.
ABOVE: Ray Leone coaching Maryland women’s soccer in a game against Iowa.
“The longer I coached, the more I wanted to do it,” Leone said. “I really wanted to immerse myself in the highest level I can.”
When Leone arrived in College Park, he took over a downtrodden team that went 6-12-1 the previous season. The Terps have taken a step forward under his leadership, winning seven games so far this year as he tries to rebuild the program.
ABOVE: Leone coached for Harvard University women’s soccer for nine years and led them to five NCAA tournaments. (Photo courtesy of Gil Talbot/Harvard Athletics)
Leone applied to coach at Maryland prior to the 1991 season. He was in charge of Creighton at the time, but he jumped at the chance to interview with the Terps.
He didn’t get the job.
Maryland instead hired April Heinrichs, who took the Terps to their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance in 1995. Heinrichs later became the coach of the United States Women’s National Team.
Leone said he believed his inexperience might have cost him the position.
“I wasn’t ready for that job, but when those jobs come up, you can’t pick the time,” Leone said. “I went for it and it was a good experience just interviewing at a school like this — my school.”
So, Leone continued to build his coaching resume.
He continued at Creighton for three more years before serving as an assistant at Clemson for one season, then head coach for six more seasons.
Leone moved on to Arizona State in 2001 to be closer to his wife, Tracey Leone, who coached the U-19 Women’s National Team on the West Coast at the time. He brought the Sun Devils to a program-best No. 9 national ranking in 2004 before leaving for Harvard in 2007.
Leone took the Crimson to five NCAA tournaments in nine years, finishing his five-school odyssey before reaching Maryland.
“They all kind of took me somewhere for a reason,” Leone said.
One thing remained constant for Leone at all those schools: He only left when the time was right.
The Maryland job opened a few times as he moved from school to school, but Leone didn’t reapply in fear of leaving his teams in bad shape. There was a period during which he abandoned his dream of coaching the Terps altogether.
ABOVE: Leone built up Harvard’s team and then only left “when the time was right.” (Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics)
“I never want to just leave a program and they’re in disarray afterwards,” Leone said. “I always wanted to kind of complete a job. Build it, make it strong and build the culture.”
However, with Harvard in stable condition and his daughter nearing college age, Leone was ready to move on.
When he saw the Maryland job open again, he didn’t hesitate.
“It’s like, man, I’ve got this in me,” Leone said. “I’ve got this desire in me and I still have the energy to go for it. That’s why I put my name in a hat … and I went for it all in.”
ABOVE: Ray Leone encourages goalkeeper Rachel Egyed during Maryland’s 3-1 win over Penn on Aug. 28, 2016. (Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics)
Leone felt he was more seasoned and qualified for the Maryland job the second time around. He was successful at Harvard, something that made the interview process more comfortable. He knew he had a solid place to return to.
As Maryland attempted to get to know Leone, the search committee asked him how he would run practice.
Leone reached into his suit pocket and pulled out a stack of miniature orange cones, arranging them on the table to demonstrate his training methods.
“I’m an abstract thinker,” Leone said. “I just basically said to them, ‘It’s not what’s in the cones that’s going to make this team special, it’s outside, not just on the field.’ That’s what we’re working on.”
Terps midfielder and captain Hope Gouterman, on hand for the interview, was taken aback by his response.
Gouterman said Leone’s unusual interview signaled his preparedness to facilitate change right away. Maryland soon hired him to rebuild the program.
Leone brings the cones to every practice, a gesture that has amused and impressed Gouterman.
“They’re like, his cones, you know?” Gouterman said. “He doesn’t like to use other ones. I almost like it more because of the fact that he brought them from when he started and continues to use them. It’s like, that’s his thing.”
Even though the Terps were coming off back-to-back losing seasons, Leone was confident he could turn around the school that turned him down more than 20 years before. Pulling out all the stops by bringing his own cones to an interview showed how much he wanted the position.
He knew he could recruit to College Park, likening the academic recruiting pitch to that of Harvard. He praised Maryland’s reputable athletic department, viewing the school as a destination players would ultimately flock to.
Leone said at the team’s media day Aug. 29 that rebuilding programs was his thing. He knew Maryland was the project for him.
“I wouldn’t have just gone anywhere,” Leone said.
ABOVE: Leone observes gameplay from the sideline during Maryland’s 3-0 loss against Penn State on Oct. 9, 2016. (Marquise McKine/The Diamondback)
Leone knew finding success at Maryland would be difficult, even as he maintained confidence in his abilities.
“In terms of just being able to put a team together here, we came in and it was fractured in many ways,” Leone said.
After an influx of transfers, the Terps could hardly assemble an 11-person team in the spring Leone arrived. They had to ask seniors who had already finished their last season to play in spring games just to get enough players on the field.
In his first full season in charge, Leone led a roster of 20 players, including former team manager Sarah Kovalchick and women’s lacrosse goalkeeper Emily Kift. Maryland went 3-15-1.
But following the season, Leone brought in the nation’s No. 25 recruiting class, expanding the roster from 20 to more than 30. Midfielder Madison Turner said Leone’s upbeat demeanor helped the struggling squad remain on track.
“From the beginning … he had this crazy positive attitude that we didn’t really know what to do with and we were all kind of freaking out,” Turner said. “It never wavered in my mind that he was invested. I always knew that he was all in.”
As the Terps warmed up to play then-No. 12 Ohio State earlier this year on a rain-drenched field, Turner recalled Leone ordering the team to line up. Leone asked the players to sprint to the end line and slide.
But before they followed the instructions, he showed them the proper technique.
“Now, this man, he can’t really run very well — like, his knee is shot, so I’m thinking he’s not going to do it,” Turner said. “He does it … but that’s just something he always does, random stuff like that to try and get us ready and keep us going.”
Leone’s enthusiasm has garnered attention from high-caliber recruits.
This season’s freshman class included Canadian youth national team players Mikayla and Malikae Dayes. Freshman forward Alyssa Poarch is part of the U.S. youth setup.
“Ray has a lot of experience in rebuilding programs and taking nothing to something,” freshman midfielder Hope Lewandoski said. “He kind of presented a challenge that I definitely was looking for in my college experience.”
ABOVE: As much as the Terps have improved, Leone still knows there is a long way to go. (Marquise McKine/The Diamondback)
The Terps have already seen improvement from Leone’s first season. More than doubling their win total from last year, the Terps are 7-7-3 with one game remaining, and have a chance to finish .500 for the first time since 2013.
Despite that growth, Leone admits there’s a long way to go before the rebuild is complete. His first measurable goal is to qualify for the Big Ten tournament, which the Terps won’t achieve this year.
Rebuilding is a slow, arduous process. But Leone waited more than 20 years for this position, and he’s willing to take the lumps to direct the program the right way.
“It’s like you’re raising a child and then you’re letting it grow,” Leone said. “When a team and a program is really going, it’s running itself. The captains are leading, the players are playing and you’re just kind of there steering it a little bit.”
Leone took a chance on his dream job in 1991 and didn’t get it. His hopes of leading Maryland faded as he continued through the college coaching ranks.
“I just never thought it would happen,” Leone said. “At some point you just let it go.”
When another opportunity arose, he used every trick up his sleeve to gain Maryland’s admiration, whether it was pulling cones out of his suit pocket in an interview or sliding on a wet field and coating himself in grass to show his dedication to his team.
While the Terps’ future is uncertain, Leone is thrilled to return to his home state for the job he always wanted.
“To come full-circle back to Maryland, where it all started for me, playing soccer, Severna Park High School, I never expected it,” Leone said. “For it to happen and to really, truly go for it, I would have been really disappointed if I didn’t get it. I know that.”