Jenn Cook pounced at the Princeton women’s lacrosse coaching opening in the same way she went after ground balls as a player at North Carolina 20 years ago.
“I wouldn’t say I had the most skill, but I think effort, hard work, scrappiness, grittiness, coachability, studying the game, really, is what I was all about,” Cook said. “And being a competitor.”
Cook, UNC’s all-time leader with 200 career ground balls, is in her first season as Princeton head coach after being hired last May to replace retired Hall of Famer Chris Sailer. The 38-year-old Cook was an assistant coach for 15 years — at Drexel her first year out of UNC before returning to her alma mater for four years under Jenny Levy, another Hall of Fame coach, and then moving on to Princeton for the last decade.
“I still pinch myself with the mentors I had in coaching that were just incredible,” Cook said. “I feel really fortunate.”
Now she’s blending all that she has learned into her own coaching style for the young Tigers, who started the year 5-5 overall, 2-1 in the Ivy League. Princeton has won seven of the last eight Ivy titles.
“It really is player-driven and player-led,” Cook said of her approach to coaching. “I prefer to lead from the back and be demanding but understanding and collaborative. Our kids are just awesome.”
Cook and Kerrin Maurer, the associate head coach, give the returning players continuity in leadership, though there are small changes. Cook is more vocal in practice. She gave her assistants Sailer’s larger office and added an espresso machine, a nod to the staff’s love of coffee. Traditions remain, like Cook and Maurer downing a Red Bull while listening to music at Class of 1952 Stadium before home games. An avid reader who often shares quotes from literature, Cook likens her hire to starting the next book in a series.
The youngest of three siblings, Cook is a product of blue-collar Delaware County, Pennsylvania, and a passionate fan of Philadelphia teams. She graduated from Marple Newtown High as the school’s all-time leading scorer in soccer and captained the swim team, but she was recruited hardest for lacrosse.
Cook was a three-time All-American at UNC who played midfield for two years before moving back to defense because of her reluctance to shoot. She had a high school internship shadowing La Salle coach Julie Weiss, but Cook credits Levy at her alma mater for seeing her coaching potential as readily as her playing potential.
“She loved the game, she loved studying film,” Levy said. “She’s just one of those that had a huge passion for the game.”
And according to Sailer, that passion went beyond the lacrosse field. “What really sealed the deal for me,” she said, “was her understanding of and care for the overall student-athlete experience. Jenn leads with her values and has uncompromising integrity.”
Sailer elevated her to associate head coach in 2017. Cook was married that year, and she and wife Danielle had a daughter, Cameron, two years ago during the COVID-19 pandemic. Cook models being a working mother on what she saw from Levy at UNC. She said she feels more patient and understanding since starting a family. Parenting and coaching blend in Cook’s focus on learning and growth. “My favorite part of being a coach is seeing a kid from the moment you recruit them at 17 all the way through graduation and post-graduation,” she said.
Her own career path has taken the long view: In 10 years at Princeton, she passed up opportunities elsewhere for the chance to take over as Sailer’s successor.
“I really enjoyed the culture at Princeton, I really enjoyed our players, I really enjoyed the people within our athletic department and our alumni and our parents,” said Cook. “The people are really what make Princeton incredibly special. The mission of the athletic department of education through athletics really rings true.”