As the son of an Army infantry officer, Ricky Fried spent his childhood bouncing around the globe with a lacrosse stick as his constant companion.
"I always had a stick in my hand since I was three," says Fried. "People would give me weird looks and say, 'What the heck is that?' It was a conversation starter, but it was also something I could do on my own."
Last July, U.S. Lacrosse—the sport's Baltimore-based governing body—named Fried the first-ever male head coach of the women's national team, a position Fried never imagined holding when he was just a kid firing a ball against a wall.
Though Fried, 44, was born in Frankfurt, Germany, his blood runs Baltimore to the core. His father, Page, played for Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and Loyola University, and Fried himself played midfield for Calvert Hall once his family resettled in Baltimore during his junior year of high school.
Fried continued playing midfield at UMBC, where he became an honorable mention All-American, before spending seven years in professional indoor lacrosse. Tired of the intense travel professional play required, Fried decided to try coaching, landing a job as an assistant to John Tucker at Gilman in 1990. Coaching was a natural fit, but when the school began urging coaches to be teachers as well, Fried was forced out. Serendipitously, Tucker's wife, Janine, head coach of the women's team at Johns Hopkins, was looking for an assistant.
"Ricky was skeptical at first, but he was open-minded," she recalls.
Coaching women had never occurred to Fried.
"I didn't know too much about the women's game," he admits. "But it was $1,500 a year compared to $500 at Gilman, so I said, 'Sure, I'll give it a shot.'"
Since making the switch 20 years ago, Fried has developed a deep understanding of—and appreciation for—coaching women both on and off the field.
"There are a lot of subtle differences," he says of the men's and women's games. "The physical nature is different. It's a 'non-contact' sport like NBA basketball. There's contact, but it's not with the stick. It's with the hands and the arms. It takes a little more technique in the women's game, because you can't use brute strength."
The psychology differs as well.
"Relationships are even more important with the female athlete," he says. "Females want to know that you care about them. Once you achieve that level of trust, the motivation piece isn't that different. Female athletes want to achieve the same way male athletes do."
And achieve they have. Last summer in Prague, the U.S. women's lacrosse team—for which Fried was an assistant coach—beat the Australians 8-7 to win the World Cup.
"Besides the obvious feeling of accomplishing something for your country, I was so proud of the effort of our team and coaches in coming together to reach our goal," he says.
The players say Fried's guidance was vital. "He has so much confidence in his players, and we feel that from him," notes Megan Huether, the national team's goalie and a Lutherville native who has known Fried since she was 13. "We play loose and free because we know he's behind us 100 percent."
Shortly after the World Cup, head coach Sue Heether announced she was stepping down. That opened the door for Fried to become the first man to lead the team in the organization's 70-plus year history.
"It was a great time for the national team to do something different," Janine Tucker says. "We need to embrace the fact that the competition is getting more intense, and Ricky is intense. This [hire] is going to affect things for years to come."
Fiery passion is a Fried staple evident to anyone who has watched him stalk a sideline, yet he strives to never lose perspective.
"You want to make sure you [know where lacrosse] falls in the paradigm of what you're doing in your life," says Fried, who lives in Columbia with his wife Halyna, son Jack, 6, and daughter Page, 4, and commutes to D.C. for his full-time gig as head coach of Georgetown University's women's team. "Family, school, and lacrosse have to be your priorities, but they have to be in that order."
As head coach of the national team, a volunteer position, Fried will oversee a roster of the best players in the country (including seven Marylanders) as they play tournaments nationwide.
Fried says his players' minds remain open, their egos in check.
"They are like sponges, they want to learn and listen," he says. "You see them grow not only as players but also as people."
Might Fried's name soon be added to the pantheon of outstanding crossover coaches like Connecticut's women's basketball's Geno Auriemma?
Ann Kitt Carpenetti, women's division director for U.S. Lacrosse, clearly believes.
"He brings people together," Carpenetti says. "He's comfortable with everyone from players to parents to donors. He's a great ambassador for the women's game."