By Kathryn Arena '21 / Sports Information Staff
WILLIMANTIC, Conn. -- Allison Coleman (2000-2004) is the best player in the 48-year history of the Eastern Connecticut State University women's basketball program, evidenced by the fact that she is the only four-time WBCA Division III All-America selection in the 37-year history of the award.
When the Eastern alumnus first started her college playing experience, she knew one thing: she loved the game of basketball and wanted to make it a career. Coleman's hard work, paired with her unbreakable bond with head coach Denise Bierly, allowed her to do just that.
Many coaches from a variety Division I programs showed interest in Coleman during her junior year at Griswold High School. Although Coleman was talented enough to play anywhere in the country, she wanted to remain close to her supportive network of family and friends. Bierly had attended many of Coleman's games, and knew she would be a good addition to the program. Coleman recognized some of the players on the team and after a campus tour she knew she found her home.
"It's kind of like something hits you and you know you belong there" she said. By November of her senior year of high school, she committed to play basketball under Bierly.
After four years of college basketball, Coleman left her legacy as a Warrior. In addition to becoming the first player to receive Division III All-American accolades four years in a row (currently, the only Division III player among 11 such players in any division of the NCAA), As a junior, she led Eastern to within a basket of the NCAA Division III national title. Coleman was named the State Farm/WCBA National Player-of-the-Year as a senior. As the Division III's No. 1 player, she was the divisional representative when the WBCA College All-Star Team met the USA Women's Senior National Team in an exhibition match.
Coleman was also named Little East Conference Player-of-the-Year each season. Her 1,991 career points make her the highest scorer in program history. Aside from scoring, she also leads the program in scoring average (17.0), assists (579), steals (369), and field goals made (769).
At left: A proven scorer in her celebrated four-year Eastern career, Allison Coleman was just as happy setting up a teammate for a basket, as evidenced by her career record for assists.
"I have never coached a kid who is more of a competitor than she was," Bierly recalled. "She was the toughest competitor this program has ever had." Coleman credits a lot of her success to Bierly, who is wrapping up her 25th season this year. "She was a tough coach," said Coleman. "She always held players accountable. Coach made you want to run through a wall for your teammates."
After her four years of eligibility were up, Coleman still needed to complete requirements for her degree, but took some time away from the classroom. She worked as a program director at her local YMCA in order to enhance her career development skills.
Coleman's path back to Eastern took shape in 2010. That year, Coleman was inducted into the Connecticut Women's Basketball Hall of Fame and requested that Bierly serve as her presenter for induction. At that event, Bierly approached her with an offer to return to Eastern to complete her degree and fill an assistant coaching position made available when three-year assistant coach Tiffany Kelver accepted an assistant coaching position at Post University. "She held me accountable for finishing my degree and basketball," Coleman said of Bierly. "I am forever grateful for the opportunity she gave me."
Coleman coached with Bierly from 2010-2014. She admits that her first year with the team took some adjusting. It was a new side to the game of basketball that she was not familiar with. "You don't know how much goes into coaching until you are on that side," she said. After taking it all in, Coleman became more involved with team activities. She took part in the recruiting and scouting process and attended leadership meetings. She was finally able to see all of the critical aspects that go into collegiate coaching.
"I loved working with her," Bierly said. "It gave us a new perspective on our relationship. Now we weren't just player and coach, we were equals." After her second year of being with the team, Coleman knew she wanted to coach full time. Her overwhelming love for the game was something she wanted to share with other young basketball players. "Every year that she helped me, she improved and got better," said Bierly. "After her four years, she was ready to be a head coach."
That is exactly what Coleman did. After four years of assistant coaching and earning her degree in Sport and Leisure Management, Coleman knew that it was time to get out and try something new. She applied for a variety of positions, but ultimately took the head coaching position at Sage College in Albany, New York.
As the head woman's basketball coach, Coleman finally had her opportunity to have her own program. "Sage felt like a new home," she said. "It checked all of the boxes for what I wanted in a job."'
At right: For the fourth year in a row in the spring of 2004, head coach Denise Bierly presents Allison Coleman with her award as the department's Female Athlete-of-the-Year.
From the day Coleman took over the Sage program, she was able to make it her own. Through five seasons, she boasts an 89-44 record, averaging 17.8 wins per season and winning 20 or more games in back-to-back seasons. More impressive is the fact that the program had a 68-149 record in the previous nine seasons under the former head coach. With half of this year's 14-person roster comprised of freshmen, Coleman directed the team to a near .500 record, at 12-13.
The year she started, the team had six senior players. In the years following, Coleman got to create her own program by using all of the skills she learned with Bierly. She recruited and developed a new class of players. During her rookie season as head coach in 2014-15, she led the Gators to a berth in the Skyline Conference tournament, an ECAC tournament semifinal berth, a record 12-game winning streak, and ultimately, a program-record (to that point) 18 wins. The next year, the Gators claimed their first Skyline regular-season championship with a 15-1 conference record. The 2016-17 season produced an NCAA tournament berth and second straight 20-win season.
Coleman credits a lot of her success to Bierly. "She is the most hardworking person I know," she said. "I want to make her proud."
Although Coleman and Bierly no longer see each other each day, they still talk frequently and share advice. "It's a really neat relationship," Bierly said. "I am really glad it has continued now that she is all grown up and has her own program."
As coaches, mentors and now lifelong friends, it is clear that Bierly and Coleman have a bond that simply cannot be broken.