Homestead football's Keel named NOW Coach of the Year
Highlanders program 153-19 since 2000
We who know the charming, driven and eminently successful Homestead football coach Dave Keel are all familiar with his sandbagging ways.
How, at the beginning of each new season, he will tell you that his Highlanders couldn't beat the worst team in the world and then he and his talented staff whip the boys into shape for another North Shore Conference title.
But really, there was a time when that storyline was true for the 2013 NOW Newspapers Football Coach of the Year, as he finished his 25th year as mentor of the Highlanders with a stout 11-1 record after graduating most everyone from the 2012 WIAA State Division 2 champions.
"My first year in 1989 I think we lost our first six games, including a 35-0 (actually 39-6) whitewashing by our old friend Phil (Datka, the semi-retired Hall of Fame coach at Germantown)," Keel said, "but then we won homecoming over Cedarburg and then another game. I won't lie, it was a struggle at first, but the kids bought into it."
That they have, starting with Keel and the Highlanders first real highpoint, the Jeff and Shon Johnson-led North Shore Conference title of 1991, right through to the stunning first state title of 1999, and now deep into a dominant new century that includes a remarkable 153-19 overall record (an .889 mark) since 2000.
The Highlanders have won or shared every North Shore title since 2001, have made WIAA state semifinals in 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2005, made state finals in 2007 and claimed state championships in 2006, 2008 and 2012.
Such is the expectation of success for the WFCA Hall of Fame coach, that this is his first NOW Coach of the Year honor (he has also won a similar honor for his fine work with the Homestead girls softball team).
It's long overdue, and in typical Keel fashion, he chooses to spread around the credit liberally.
"This is all so multifaceted," he said. "We got the youth programs (in Mequon/Thiensville) going and have established a great relationship with them. We also made a decision early to go two-platoon and start 11 different kids on offense and 11 different kids on defense. Give 22 players a shot. We also encouraged the kids to get involved in other sports.
"We consider those our pillars of success."
Great assistants help
Keel has also had an astute touch with the hiring of talented and equally motivated assistants. The list has evolved over time, but key people such as defensive coordinator Fritz Rauch and other assistants such as defensive line coach Tom Fugate (too many collegiate linemen groomed to be mentioned), offensive line coach Matt Wolf (old school exhortation: "We should not have to pass the ball on this drive!"), Steve Manor and former Sheboygan Falls head man and fellow Hall of Famer Dan Juedes, have been the foundation for Highlander success in Keel's eyes.
"It would take too many minutes to list all the qualities of our staff," Keel said.
Rauch, a spell-binding speaker at clinics, also brought in several years ago the concept of the student/athlete Leadership Council, which helps teach the players personal responsibility and gives them some measure of control over certain decisions. It has been a highly successful idea, Keel said.
"He (Rauch) still heads it up and it's very popular with the players," Keel said. "All of these people are also great teachers in their own right and that has helped translate into them being great coaches. Put a whistle on them and they're teachers on the field."
Which was needed this season, as the Highlanders had maybe three, three-and-a-half starters back on offense and maybe two on defense from the 2012 state champs.
They worked around a veteran offensive line (where most of the returning starters originated) and went from there. Leaders like All-Staters defensive lineman David Pfaff, safety Bryce Juedes (Dan's son) and offensive lineman Jordan Lewinsky helped pull the team along.
'Battle' set the tone
Junior quarterback Nick Allen also developed into someone that Keel could count on. The result was an inspiring season, highlighted by the latest "Battle of the Century" in the second game of the season when the heavily favored all-world returning state D1 champs from Arrowhead visited Homestead and left 13-7 losers in what has to be one of Keel's favorite games ever.
"That game really set the tone for the rest of the season for us," he said. "It showed us that we could compete with anyone and that everyone's hard work really could pay off."
The Highlanders would ultimately win their first 11 games including an unbeaten run through the North Shore. Only a stunning WIAA Level 3 playoff defeat to eventual state D2 champ Kimberly marred the effort.
"As we get further away from the heartbreak and disappointment of that loss, we can look at the accomplishments of the kids and the coaches with a clearer eye," Keel said. "It was a special year. We are very proud of how far the kids have come. It was a wonderful job of them all coming together."
Which will hopefully happen again next year. Keel has been retired from teaching for a couple of years now and his youngest, Amy, is a junior in college. Following her graduation, he'd like to stay close to where she is, so all he is guaranteeing is the 2014 season.
Given Keel's past record, it's likely to be another very good one. I'd get to at least a couple of games if I were you.
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