By Colin Giuliani// Sports Editor
On Jan. 15, UNCG announced that EJ O’Keeffe would be named the new head coach of the Spartans. O’Keeffe returns to his alma mater, where he played for three seasons from 2007-09 and helped lead the Spartans to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament in 2008. O’Keeffe takes over a program that finished 8-9-2 last season and has lost in the final of the Southern Conference Tournament in each of the past two seasons.
“I’m excited to come home,” said O’Keeffe in an introductory press conference. “UNCG is close to my heart along with so many alums. There is a rich tradition at UNCG soccer, and I look to add to that.”
The move leaves HPU looking for a new coach for the first time since the 2015 season when O’Keeffe was named head coach of the Panthers following Dustin Fonder’s departure to Campbell University. In his four years at HPU, O’Keeffe recorded 42 wins. This is the most wins by any coach in HPU history after his first four seasons with the program. He made it to the semifinals of the Big South Tournament in each of his first four seasons, becoming just one of four coaches in Big South history to accomplish this feat, alongside Paul Banta of Coastal Carolina from 1984-87, Don Staley of Radford from 1986-89, and Steve Adlard of UNC Asheville from 1988-91.
O’Keeffe was named the Big South Coach of the Year in each of his final two seasons with the Panthers, becoming one of five head coaches in conference history to win this award in consecutive seasons, alongside Tim Morse of Campbell from 1984-85, Paul Banta of Coastal Carolina from 1986-87, Shaun Docking of Coastal Carolina from 2002-03 and 2011-12, and Dustin Fonder of HPU from 2009-10. In 2015 and 2017, O’Keeffe guided the Panthers to the Big South Championship, becoming the first coach in program history to make the Big South Championship twice.
His success with the Panthers was put on a national display during the 2018 season. HPU finished the 2018 season with a 13-3-2 record, including a 1-0 win on Oct. 16 on the road against Duke, the fifth-ranked team in the country at the time of the game. The win was a historic one not just for the program, which had not defeated Duke since Oct. 30, 1941, but for the Big South Conference; since the formation of the conference, it was just the fourth time ever that a Big South team had defeated Duke, and was the first time this had happened since 2000, when Radford defeated Duke 3-2.
This success was highlighted by an at-large appearance in the NCAA Tournament. This was not just the first time in program history that HPU made the NCAA Tournament, but was also the first time that any men’s program on campus received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. In the tournament, the Panthers hosted James Madison in the first round; while HPU lost 3-0, this marked the first time ever that any program in HPU hosted an NCAA Tournament game. This at-large bid was the seventh at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament in Big South history, and the first since 2015 when both Radford and Coastal Carolina received at-large bids.
Over his four seasons, O’Keeffe helped make Vert Stadium one of the toughest places in the nation to play at. HPU went 20-9-10 at home during his time with the program, recording at least a draw in 77 percent of their home games. The Panthers never allowed more than two goals in any home game during the regular season in his four years and finished at or above .500 in all four seasons as the head coach.
A strong defense also defined O’Keeffe’s tenure at HPU. The Panthers went 28 consecutive conference matches, including games in the Big South Tournament, without allowing multiple goals; this is a streak that is still active. The Big South Defensive Player of the Year was on the Panthers in each of the past two seasons, with Rashid Tetteh splitting this honor in 2017 with Radford defender Fraser Colmer, and Johnny Fenwick winning this award outright in 2018. In 2018, three of the starting four defenders on the Panthers received All-Big South honors, with Fenwick and Tetteh earning First Team All-Big South honors, and Nick Phipps winning Second Team All-Big South honors.
A replacement has not yet been announced, and no timetable has been made public as to when O’Keeffe’s replacement will be announced.
Following four of the most successful seasons in program history, including an appearance in the NCAA Tournament in 2018, former HPU men’s soccer coach EJ O’Keeffe (left) has accepted the same position at UNCG. Photo by highpointpanthers.com