When Matt O’Keefe took over Sacred Heart, the Lady Crusaders were 3-6 on the year.
However, after taking a 12-year hiatus from a successful coaching career, O’Keefe worked his magic touch and not only turned the program around but brought it a series of firsts.
O’Keefe guided Sacred Heart to a 17-12 record, the school’s first-ever district championship and its first-ever appearance in the semifinals. These achievements earned O’Keefe the title of PineBeltSPORTS Girls Coach of the Year.
“It was a learning experience at first, even for me,” O’Keefe said. “It was an enjoyable experience, and the thing that I enjoyed the most was probably seeing the kids improve week by week. We turned kind of a bad situation into a positive situation. The kids at Sacred Heart deserve all the credit because they worked very hard for me.”
While O’Keefe had 27 years of coaching experience behind him, he was faced with numerous unforeseen challenges. For example, in O’Keefe’s first day of taking over the program, the Lady Crusaders had to prepare for a game the next day.
“I have never come in and practiced a team and played a game the next day. It was very difficult to prepare for a team,” O’Keefe said. “The biggest thing was trying to come up with some kind of game plan in one day of practice. Plus, that game I coached in was my first game in 12 years. Even though it felt like riding a bike, a lot of it was still an interesting experience for me.”
Sacred Heart, in fact, won that game over St. Patrick 48-37.
According to O’Keefe, establishing new team goals was a key part of helping develop his team’s confidence.
“I’m a big goal-setter, and the first day I met the kids, they probably thought I was blowing smoke,” O’Keefe said. “I said that if we work hard, then we really have a chance to be one of the better teams in the division. Wouldn’t it be great if we win the division championship, host some playoff games and maybe get hot? Everybody knows that Lumberton is the team to be beat. But I (told them), I think we are the only team in the division who can beat them.”
Under O’Keefe, Sacred Heart went 9-5 in the second half of the season, which earned the Lady Crusaders the second seed in the 1A Region 8 District tournament.
However, according to O’Keefe, one of the most important games of the season came in the 60-17 loss to Lumberton.
“We rolled into Lumberton to play them for the second division game of the year,” O’Keefe said. “We were without Gracie (Falla), Gabby (Falla) and, of course, Avery (Smith) was hurt. I told the girls that we are probably going to take one on the chin tonight, and if we do, I’m going to allow them to put it on us. Everybody looked at me and said, ‘what do you mean by that,’ and I told them that if it gets bad, I’m going to put in my backups to play a lot, and we’re going to rest everybody. Mentally, if they beat you bad, then mentally, it’s going to be difficult for them to rebound when they play us again ... if we are fortunate enough to play them in the division championship.”
The extent of the blowout was planned by O’Keefe as he had anticipated meeting Lumberton again for the district championship.
“It’s difficult for a team to play a team again in a division championship mentally, after beating you by 40 points (earlier),” O’Keefe said.
“Luckily for me, my ploy worked until the end. I had always hated playing teams that we had beaten badly in big games like division championships or playoffs because sometimes it’s hard to get up for a game like that.”
The psychological ploy worked as Sacred Heart upset top-seeded Lumberton 57-56. In the postseason, the Lady Crusaders went on a five-game win streak before falling short in the semifinal game.
Looking ahead, Sacred Heart will graduate only two seniors and will return all of its starters.
“We are excited about the future but don’t want to get ahead of ourselves,” O’Keefe said. “Sometimes it’s very difficult to more or less have the same accomplishments the following year. Next year if we can stay away from injuries, I think we’ll have a fine club, but we have to come out hungry about what we want to do.”
For O’Keefe, the Coach of the Year honor is considered more special considering the number of trials his team faced.
“Being named Coach of the Year is a huge honor,” O’Keefe said. “I’m very appreciative because there were some outstanding coaches in this area. I think this year, even though it was just half a year for me, was probably the most enjoyable year I have had as a coach based on where they came from ... from being 3-6 and having some trials and tribulations with the coach no longer being there and seeing them improve.”