ESCANABA - Escanaba girls basketball coach Kelly O'Connell was beginning his offseason routine and planning for the 2013-14 season when life happened. Escanaba volleyball coach Bron Harmon also received some life-changing news recently. They each turned in their letters of resignation on Monday.
"It's always in the back of your mind. It's the longest season of any high school sport, so every season when that clock ticks down, you take a few days off, regroup and get back at it," said O'Connell Monday evening. "I had that expectation again this year and a few circumstances popped up that changed my direction."
O'Connell coached the Eskymos' girls varsity basketball team for seven seasons beginning in 2006, compiling an overall record of 53-93. Before that, he coached the JV boys basketball team at Escanaba for two seasons and prior to that he coached junior high boys and girls basketball at Holy Name.
Dennis Grall photo
Escanaba Eskymos girls varsity basketball coach?Kelly O’Connell directs his team during a game last season. O’Connell handed in his letter of resignation Monday after seven seasons coaching the Eskymos’ girls and two seasons with the boys’ JV?team. Also resigning was varsity volleyball head coach Bron?Harmon, who has coached the Eskymos since 2003.
"I had winning seasons with JV boys and thought I could carry that over to girls basketball. I didn't win enough games and I'll put that blame on me," O'Connell said.
Though O'Connell's record at Escanaba wasn't sterling, he achieved a significant amount of success.
He coached All-U.P. athletes such as Michelle Carne (2006-07) and Olivia Nash (2008-12). Carne is now a head girls basketball coach at Rapid River while Nash was recently named Freshman of the Year in the Summit League with Division I Oakland University. O'Connell has kept in contact with both of them.
"What an honor to say that you coached a Division I player," he said, referring to Nash. "I coached Olivia for four years, watched her grow and I followed her this year. I'm so proud of her.
"I developed a lot of great relationships with my former players. I hope I did more for them than just coach the game of basketball."
O'Connell was also cognizant of those he was worked with on a daily basis and appreciative of his family and friends who offered support.
"A lot of people don't know what it's like to be the wife of a coach and what they have to sacrifice, so I want to thank my wife Debbie.
"I want to thank our athletic director Dave Wilson. I worked with Dave for six years and we developed a great relationship. I couldn't ask for a better AD and Doug Leisenring, our principal. They've been so supportive of me and I have a lot of respect. Our school system is in great hands with those guys."
O'Connell also feels that although the program is coming off a 4-17 season, there is high potential for the next coach.
"There is an All-U.P. player in Michelle LaFave, you have Sam Connor who will be coming back off of a shoulder injury. Ashley Cook and Lynsey Collins are two of the fastest girls I've ever coached," he said. "So I think the new coach will have a good base with those four players and there's some good young players coming up, so the cupboard isn't dry and there's a lot of good potential there."
There were also struggles with the job, as O'Connell explained.
"The biggest challenge was getting kids to believe that this game takes a lot of work," he said. "You can't put the ball down in March and not pick it up until November. That's one of the challenges I've really had to struggle with. This game is too fast and too skilled not to develop your skills. I can bring kids along defensively, but offensively you have to work on your own time."
And there were great memories as well.
"My very first year coaching when we were still a Class A team, we went down and upset Traverse City West in the district tournament. Marquette was undefeated and Traverse City Central upset them. We weren't supposed to beat West, they had a very good team, then we got beat by Central. That was a good memory though," O'Connell said.
"And the team I had in 2012 that went 14-6. We were a free throw away from going to overtime against Gladstone in the district. That was a good memory, a great game, a great crowd. Those two stick out.
"A lot of times, when coaches retire, they say 'I'm not going to miss the bus rides or the summer stuff.' I am going to miss that," continued O'Connell. "I"m a gym rat and have been my whole life. I try to sell kids on individual workouts. I hope whoever takes over can get more kids in the gym because it's fun. They have to buy into it though and they have to work."
O'Connell enjoyed his time as a varsity coach immensely but doesn't regret his decision, saying it was just time.
"I love this game," he said. "I put my heart and soul into it. I'm leaving with some tough emotions. I had a blast, I sure loved the kids I coached and I wish everyone luck."
Bron Harmon got the news back in January that her husband Scott, a methodist pastor, was being reappointed. She is moving in June to follow his job.
"It wasn't much of a decision but it was a hard thing to go through," she said Monday evening. "Leaving is tough. I told Dave WIlson in January but held my resignation until after the eighth grade volleyball season."
Harmon has coached the varsity volleyball program for nearly a decade, beginning in 2003.
"I've really enjoyed watching the student athletes grow and mature," Harmon said. "One class of kids, I really got to watch grow and that was a joy."
Harmon voiced opinions similar to O'Connell on the struggles of coaching at the varsity level today.
"I think coaches have new challenges now in communicating to kids that it takes work," she said. "Kids live in such an immediate society today that sometimes they've lost that. Some kids get it, but it's definitely something I've seen over the last 10 years. It's more difficult to teach that and for kids to understand that you need to work to make progress. It's not that they aren't willing, but they have to be taught. They are impatient with themselves and they want to be perfect right now. Working through that is certainly a challenge and I think that's the biggest obstacle coaches have right now."
Harmon was also appreciative of the opportunity to coach at the varsity level and thanked those around her.
"I've always felt supported by the administration and staff. I enjoyed my peers. I want to thank Dave Wilson. My time as a varsity coach has been good and a large part of that is because of the support I received from the administration," she said. "I've really enjoyed volleyball as a whole in this area and the people involved are really good people. It was just a fun place to coach.
"I've thoroughly enjoyed my time here."