Tori Emoff was on her way to Stevenson University after she was hired as the school's women's ice hockey coach this summer, and the most prevalent thought on her mind was, "What do I do now?"
She looked back on the goals she set and the career she built for herself as a defenseman for the Mustangs. Many of the boxes had been checked off. She was a first-team all-conference player, she set school records, led the conference in stat categories and helped her team earn a conference title.
Being a head coach was always at the top of her list, though, and now, at 25 years old, she has met that goal as well. After working as an assistant coach at Division III Trine University (Ind.) the previous two seasons, she's come back to a place she calls home.
And that makes it even sweeter.
"I'm the head coach at, right now, my dream institution," Emoff said. "I'm able to represent my university in a completely different way. And my life is different for that. Now, I'm here representing the university in a very forward way."
Emoff "bleeds green" for Stevenson, which makes sense because playing for the Mustangs helped her reignite her love for hockey. As a member of the inaugural team (2012-13), Stevenson fell back in love "way, way hard" with the sport, and now she wants to use her new position to give back to the university in any possible way.
"Being able to come back and actually pour my heart and soul into the program that saved me is really exciting," Emoff said. "And for it to be my first head coaching position, I feel really lucky."
Emoff has been around hockey for most of her life. Her father was a hockey player for a club team while attending Indiana University, and she started skating around the same time she was learning how to walk. But despite being around the sport for her entire childhood, she initially was a figure skater.
Emoff said she was good figure skater, but her heart was not in it. There was no love for the sport itself. She was at the rink for a routine practice when she saw a sign on the wall that read, "Girl hockey players wanted. No experience needed."
"I said, "Dad, I want to do that," Emoff said. "And that was it."
At 12 years old, Emoff was entering the sport at a late age. Many players start around 4 years old, Emoff said, but this is where her skating foundation she had developed for more than a decade paid off for her. She was able to progress at a quicker pace despite being so new to the sport.
"I tried it and I fell completely head over heels in love with it," she said.
Emoff went on to play for the Ohio Flames in high school, and later the defenseman was signed by Stevenson as one of the first players for the university's first hockey team. But the first two years did not go as planned; although she appeared in almost every game, she only scored a total of three goals in those two seasons.
Emoff was simply not the player she wanted to be on the team. She wanted to be a "go-to" type of player who gets the call on power plays and is on the ice when the goalie gets pulled for must-score situations.
That wasn't how she performed, though, and she gave all the cliché excuses. She didn't think it was her fault; it was the coaches who didn't see her potential, and that was why she wasn't getting those bigger moments.
But her father called her out on all that with some hard truths. He told her she was slow, out of shape and not putting in the work.
"He said, 'You're not doing this, you're not doing that,'" Emoff said. "He told me that if you do something about it, you'll be the player you want to be. So I took that and ran with it and I had a huge transformation between my sophomore and junior year. I trained like a beast for three months straight and lost 30 pounds. I was an absolute beast."
That hard work became apparent on the ice. She had a +17 plus-minus rating, scored three power play goals and blocked 15 shots. She was voted team captain the following season and posted 13 points, which was second in the Colonial Hockey Conference among defensemen.
Emoff rediscovered her love for the sport, and now that she's back as the leader of the program, she wants to make sure the culture that helped her revive that passion doesn't change.
"I've been talking to some of the girls that are here on campus, and their biggest concerns with a new head coach was with their culture changing," Emoff said. "And I thought that was really cool because we kind of established and developed that culture together being part of the inaugural team. Stevenson culture is in my blood ... so they were pretty relieved to know that the culture Stevenson hockey has established is going to carry on. They legacy of that is going to carry on."
And her familiarity with that culture played a role in Emoff earning the position. Emoff takes over for Tracy Johnson, who led the program for six years.
"It was important to me to have our program take that next step, and that next step is bringing it full circle and having one of our very own, a great woman leader and great hockey player take our program to the next level," Stevenson athletic director Brett Adams said when Emoff was hired.
Stevenson has found their leader to take their hockey team to new levels of success. They found that in someone who helped bring the program from its foundations to a conference championship. And as for Emoff, this is her dream job, and she doesn't see herself going somewhere else anytime soon.
"As far as hometowns go, I don't really have roots," Emoff said. "I moved around a lot in life. So this is my home. I lived here through college and then spent another year here after that coaching and working. This is my home, and this is where I belong."
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Trine Athletics