When Feffie Barnhill’s right shoulder needed repairs recently, she didn’t undergo a simple sew-up of a severed labrum or work on the rotator cuff. “I had seven different things fixed,” she says.
That’s typical. Barnhill, head lacrosse coach at Ursuline Academy, doesn’t do only one thing at a time.
A U.S. Lacrosse Hall of Fame inductee, she earned 15 letters in five athletic pursuits during college. She runs lacrosse clinics and camps. She was a founding member and the first president of the Federation of International Lacrosse, for which she still serves as a board member. She directs the Scottish national team, and she is working to create a program that harvests used equipment from American players to distribute around the world.
She continues to create other new ways for young people to experience the game. She fights for clean play as part of FIL’s anti-doping program, and she decries the out-of-control nature of collegiate lacrosse recruiting. If there is such a thing as a purist in the world of sports anymore, Barnhill is it.
Margie Vaughan Snead, a two-time All-American at the College of William & Mary under Barnhill, remains close to her former coach. Snead describes her as “a professor of lacrosse,” but her best moments with Barnhill came while discussing life in the office or during 17-hour bus trips to road games. That’s when the coach became a person—and a friend.
“I wish I could have been a teammate of hers,” says Snead, now admissions director and head girls lacrosse coach at Trinity Episcopal School in Virginia. “She always made you feel 3 inches taller than you were and gave you a certain swagger. I’m coaching today because of her and the impact she had on my life.”
When most players finish a lacrosse practice, they often head for a soothing shower, restorative ice bath or just some well-deserved rest. When Barnhill was at Ursinus College 40 years ago, she and several teammates would leave the field and head to softball practice.
“If we hadn’t played, there would have been no softball team,” Barnhill says. “The trick was that they had to schedule the seasons so that no softball and lacrosse matches were held the same day. Some weeks, we would play six [combined softball and lacrosse] games.”
Barnhill went to Ursinus to become a teacher, but her busy competition schedule would have led one to believe she majored in athletics. She had always been a sports fanatic from the minute she could walk. “I was the first kid to gym class and the last to English class,” she says, laughing.
Barnhill was born in 1953. She was named for her grandmother, Ethel. The standard nickname at the time for Ethel was Effie, but Barnhill’s mother insisted that no female name should start with a vowel, so the family added an F. Barnhill attended Tatnall School, where her father, Marty, taught for 26 years. He also coached football, so Barnhill hung around practices, chasing loose balls and occasionally holding for the kicker. She played field hockey, basketball, lacrosse and badminton, and she wanted to wrestle. Girls didn’t do that sort of thing back then, but “every now and then, they’d let me get onto the mats with some of the little guys,” she says.
At Ursinus, Barnhill won three Eastern Collegiate championships in badminton. She played basketball, lacrosse and softball, and she traded shots and elbows with top-flight field hockey players, including the legendary Beth Anders, an Olympian and nine-time NCAA tournament-winning head coach. “I still have a lump on my shinbone from one her shots,” Barnhill says. “Practicing against her was hell.”
After graduating from Ursinus in 1975, Barnhill took a job at St. Catherine’s, an all-girls boarding school in Richmond, Va. She taught phys ed, coached lacrosse and basketball and, on weekends, played club lacrosse and field hockey. After her library duty two nights a week, she would line up books on the floor, dribble a hockey ball through them, then shoot against a brick wall as practice.
Barnhill took the head lacrosse and assistant field hockey coaching jobs at William & Mary in 1981. She was only 28 years old—young to lead a program—but Barnhill was clearly ready. She had enjoyed her time at St. Catherine’s, but she wanted to work with elite players.
“I had always known I liked to coach the gifted,” Barnhill says. “When I was coaching seventh-graders, a third of them would be good and a third would be terrible. I wanted to be at a higher level. The college level was perfect for me.”
Barnhill embraced lacrosse above all other sports. She liked its fluid pace, constant action and endless opportunities to innovate strategies. For her, it was like a big game of basketball on grass.
Barnhill posted a 157-87-1 record at William & Mary, won seven conference titles and reached the NCAA tournament six times. She produced 26 All-Americans and nine members of the U.S. national team.
She augmented her work at W&M with summer camps and coaching gigs that included the U.S. national team. In 1989, she took the squad to Australia for the World Cup, where it defeated England in sudden-death overtime for the title.
In 1998, Barnhill coached her last game at William & Mary, a playoff against James Madison. “The players were in the middle of exams and played terribly,” she says. “I couldn’t get them out of their sleep-deprived stupor.”
She hadn’t planned on resigning, but after the loss, she learned that her father had died. She headed home to Greenville to support her mother. Family was a factor in her decision, but so was the sport’s changing personality.
“The No. 1 reason I’m not in college coaching is that I did not care for the way the teams were recruiting athletes to their schools,” she says. The aggressive nature of recruiting creates a meat-market atmosphere around summer camps and tournaments, and it often forces young people to make college decisions before they’re ready, she says. “It had become vicious.”
So Barnhill headed to Tower Hill, where she coached for 12 years and won three state titles. In 2013, she took over at Ursuline, where she still chases championships.
“Every day, I’m excited to get onto the practice field,” she says. Barnhill loves leading young women. She doesn’t worry about how others will regard her style or results. Her goal is to help her players develop as athletes and people, and they respond.
And she loves lacrosse. Her work for the national team and on the international circuit has been groundbreaking, and she has fought to make sure that women players have the resources and opportunities that men do. She continues to work with young coaches and players during the summer, gives private lessons and teaches as a substitute during the school year. Her level of commitment is unparalleled. She has been part of the drive to get women’s lacrosse considered as a provisional sport for the Olympic Games and is energized by the thought of partnering players in U.S. cities with youngsters around the world through equipment donations.
“When you look at her resume and her give-back to the sport, it’s phenomenal,” says Danielle Gallagher, a two-time first-team All-American at W&M and a U.S. Lacrosse Hall of Famer who coaches at Manhasset High School on Long Island. “She has taught that to her players. Her mentality of give-back is unbelievable.”
Barnhill may consider herself a “private person,” but when it comes to lacrosse, she is a public treasure. And she isn’t quitting anytime soon, no matter what has to be done to her shoulder.
“I’m not done,” she says, “not until I win another state championship.”
And does about a hundred other things.