CBA Soccer Coach Dan Keane Reaches the 500-Win Mark
There were no group hugs, team photos, colorful banners or ice-cold Gatorade baths following the foremost milestone coaching win in the history of Shore Conference soccer on Sept. 18 at Christian Brothers Academy.
With his team’s 2-1, come-from-behind win over Shore Conference Class A North division rival Howell, 36-year head coach Dan Keane secured his 500th career win as the man in charge of the Shore’s most dominant program on the pitch and despite that, the beloved coach and teacher got none of that special treatment.
That’s because Keane was not even present for his own landmark victory.
Like many a longstanding high school program, CBA soccer is, on its surface, one built on the talent, work ethic and athletic intellect of its players and coaches, but is ultimately held together by something beyond those elements. Multiple generations have contributed to the Colts’ success since Keane’s first season in 1978 and the result has been an often-underlying, but sometimes-prevalent sense of family.
Keane has helped to create that sense of responsibility to one another within the program during his 36 years and that same love for his family on the field that motivated him to return for another season as head coach is what ultimately kept him away from one of the more notable victories of his career. On Sept. 18, Keane’s wife was recovering from surgery on her carotid artery. While his team prepared to take the field for what turned out to be win No. 500, Keane was riding home with his wife from New York Presbyterian Hospital.
“We all wanted to win this one for coach,” said junior Russell Romano, who scored the game-winning goal in the 71st minute against Howell. “We knew he had an important family issue to deal with, and we just wanted to give him some good news. We’re looking forward to seeing him in school and congratulating him.”
It was fitting that Romano score the game-winning goal and that freshman Matt Thorsheim initiated the tying goal midway through the second half – an own goal off the head of a Howell defender – with a well-serviced corner kick. Russell is the third Romano brother to play for Keane, with oldest brother Kevin starting for two years in 2008 and 2009 and middle brother Mike starting as an outside midfielder on the 21-0 NJSIAA Non-Public A championship team in 2011. Thorsheim’s older brother, Chris, was the All Shore Media Player of the Year while starring for that 2011 team as well.
“I’ve had a chance to grow up around the program, and it’s been a big part of my life,” Romano said. “Coach Keane has built this program on integrity, hard work and tradition, and that’s what makes it special playing here. He’s just an all-around great guy, not just out here, but in school every day. He’s a huge part of CBA.”
While the two older Romano brothers and Chris Thorsheim took the program to heights that their younger brothers can only hope to reach at this point, Russell Romano and Matt Thorsheim have already gone where their brothers have not. This year, CBA is fielding its youngest roster during Keane’s tenure, one year after running out a team with zero returning starters and just one goal from the state championship squad that scored 83 times during the previous season. Romano has started since his sophomore year and Thorsheim is just the fourth CBA freshman to ever start for the varsity team. Chris won his first starting job as a sophomore in 2009.
The influx of youth over the last two years was what led Keane to consider retirement and for many around the Shore to openly speculate that the longtime CBA coach would indeed step down. On the contrary, the new faces and potential to build yet another champion from scratch is what ultimately drew Keane back for another year.
“I just love being around the game and coaching the kids, and deep down, I wasn’t ready to stop doing it just yet,” Keane said. “At the end of the 2011 season, I really thought that was going to be it for me, but I didn’t want to decide right then and there because I knew I might feel differently in a few months. It’s not as easy as it used to be, it’s more demanding at my age and there will come a day when I can’t do it anymore. But teaching is my passion and as long as that passion is there, I’m going to keep coming back.”
Several factors conspired to bring Keane back for another year, but the 65-year-old coach insists that winning 500 games was not one of them. In a career that includes five state titles and seven Shore Conference Tournament championships, 500 wins ultimately takes a back seat.
“Danny and I have talked about it many times over the last two years, and we both feel the same way: 500 is just another number,” said Jeff Matson, Keane’s top assistant for the last 20 seasons. “I know in America we attach a lot of importance to numbers, but when you’ve won championships and had success, what’s one more win? Believe me, Danny wasn’t coming back for another full season just to win one more game. He genuinely loves coaching, and he wants to see this group do well.”
“To me, 500 is special because it’s a testament to the players and coaches who have been a part of the program in that time, and the parents, administrators and all of the fans who have supported us and cheered us on,” Keane said. “It’s a nice accomplishment for me, but when I’m done coaching, I’ll remember 21-0 in 2011, the 1998 and 2000 teams, and all of the kids that played for me on those teams.”
The CBA soccer program endured its first ever losing season in 2012, finishing 6-8-3 while failing to qualify for the Shore Conference Tournament and bowing out of the NJSIAA South Jersey Non-Public A first round. All the more painful for the Colts faithful was that they lost to local Non-Public rival St. John Vianney in overtime, the first time Vianney had ever defeated CBA in soccer. More than a milestone number, rebuilding the program was a motivating factor for Keane to return.
“The way last year ended definitely had something to do with me coming back,” Keane said. “I wouldn’t say it’s the number one reason or anything, and I wouldn’t have had any regrets if that had been it. But it would have been hard to walk away after what really was the worst season in the history of the program. The first losing record, we lose in the first round of the state tournament, and we don’t even qualify for the Shore Conference Tournament, which has never happened.
“The thing about it is, this year we’re even younger. We have some talented young kids, but with the lack of experience we have, there is no guarantee that we’ll be able to have a winning season this year either. I’m just looking forward to the challenge of coaching these young kids and maybe helping them get back that CBA winning tradition.”
A Teacher from the Beginning
For all of his success in soccer over the last 36 years, Keane’s athletic background is in basketball and baseball. As a scholastic athlete, Keane played those two sports while attending Queen of Peace High School in North Arlington, N.J. He then earned a degree in social studies education from Seton Hall University and a master’s degree in education from Montclair State University.
Keane was hired as a teacher at CBA in 1977 and after a year in the school, he was asked if he would be interested in the varsity soccer job. While Keane lacked playing experience himself, his father, Dan Sr., was an all-state player at St. Benedict’s High School in Newark.
“I knew I knew the game, I knew I could teach it, and I knew I could motivate young people to work together and ultimately to succeed,” Keane recalled. “The one thing that made me nervous is that I didn’t have that actual playing experience that I could share with the kids, and I didn’t know how that would affect me. That’s why I’ve always believed in surrounding the program with top-notch coaches and top-notch people, and that’s really been the secret to the success, along with the kids.”
Keane never saw his father play during his playing days at Panzer College, which later became part of Montclair State University, nor did Dan Sr. watch any of his son’s athletic pursuits. Dan Keane Sr. died at age 45, when Dan Jr. was only 10 years old.
“I didn’t have a chance to spend a whole lot of time with him, but my memories of my father are still pretty vivid,” Keane said. “I can remember as a nine-year-old, him taking me to soccer games in Kearny, which in those days was like the soccer hotbed of the state. It wasn’t always high school games, either. There were club games, adult games, just any game that happened to be going on. He’d try to teach me everything that was going on, but as a nine-year-old, you don’t take in much of that. But over time, some of it starts to resonate with you and just the experience I got to share with my father was enough to boost my interest.”
If there are elements of family embedded in the CBA soccer culture, it is easy to see why. Keane’s pursuit of excellence in coaching has been as much a tip of the cap to his parents as it’s been his own pursuit.
“I originally wanted to be a sportswriter and that’s what I did in college,” Keane said. “Ultimately, I gravitated toward teaching because both of my parents were in education. I would have never imagined that I’d get into coaching soccer. If he were alive, I think my dad would have been surprised, too. I’d like to think he’d be proud of me because a lot of what I do I learned from him in the brief time I got to spend time with him.”
The Right-hand Man
Of all the people with whom Keane has surrounded himself, none has been more prominent – especially during the second half of Keane’s tenure – than Matson. After coaching both the boys and girls teams at Red Bank Catholic, Matson took a teaching job at CBA.
“When I came (to CBA) they told me you can coach anywhere you want,” Matson said. “Except Red Bank Catholic.”
Matson then moved on from the Colts’ rival 10 minutes east on Newman Springs Road and took the Red Bank Regional head coaching job for two seasons before finally joining Keane’s staff for the 1994 season.
With a background of European soccer traced back to his days living in Belgium as a kid, Matson brought with him an insight into advanced training and tactical soccer that helped Keane take his program to another level. Matson was on board for the landmark seasons of 1998 and 2000 and again in 2011.
“Jeff and I are close friends,” Keane said. “We’ve spent 20 seasons together, which is a long time. He’s great working with the kids at practice, doing a lot of the physical stuff that I can’t do anymore.
“One thing that’s been key for us is consistency in coaching. Tommy Mulligan has been the jayvee coach for about 20 years, Rory Fitzgerald has been with the freshmwn for seven years now, and both are CBA guys. Jeff is part of that too, being here for 20 years. It’s the same message every year.”
For the last 20 years, Keane and Matson have been extensions of one another, albeit very different extensions. Keane is the laid-back, affable coach barking out words of encouragement and motivation while Matson is the one who runs practices, directs the game plan and lets officials know when he sees things differently. What makes the two men different from one another is also what has made them such a good team.
“He’s calmed me down a lot,” Matson said of Keane. “I was very fiery in my day and since I teamed up with Danny, his personality has rubbed off on me, and it’s made me a better coach.
“We are very different: he’s more of the motivational type, I’m more tactical, but together, it works very well. And one thing I’ve learned is that it’s always better to have two sets of eyes. We see things differently sometimes, but it’s never gotten in the way of our relationship. In 20 years, we have not had one fight, and that’s a testament to him and the program he runs.”
On Sept. 18, with Keane taking care of his actual family, Matson saw to it that the soccer family that Keane has cared for the past 35 years played the CBA way while their coach was away. It was a glimpse of what CBA will be like when Keane finally does call it a career. As many times as the Colts win while he is not there, the roots of success will always be traced back to the unofficial father of CBA soccer.
“I guess I’d have to be the focal point of the program because I’m the one who has been here for 36 years,” Keane said. “But everything I’ve accomplished is because of the people who have passed through the program. That’s the coaches, the players, the parents, the administrators and the students who have supported us. They are the people that make the program so special. I’ve just been lucky enough to be along for the ride.”