Brenda Lemons, assistant coach for the high school girls’ soccer team, likes to tell the story that best exemplifies the joy she sees on the faces of the girls who play soccer for Chester High under Coach Eric O’Kelley:
After a particularly grueling practice, often involving long distance runs and obstacle courses, the team will collapse in a pool of sweat and fatigue. Coach Eric O’Kelley brings the girls together, looks around, and then with a smile, asks them: “Know what’s better than this?” And the girls will shout-out their answer:” NOTHING!!!”.
The moment speaks to the program that O’Kelley has built: a program that instills a love for the game, a sense of belonging, of a commitment to the team, and a coach who teaches his players to be better players and better persons through example.
In the fall, Eric O’Kelley can be seen on a soccer field coaching the girl’s high school team. Come spring, he’s back at it, organizing the spring youth program. Through it all, he commits huge amounts of his time to fund raise, prep fields, order and organize equipment, and yes, coach - all the myriad things necessary to put together a youth sports program. But he didn’t play soccer as a youth, so one might wonder how he became the center of the program in Chester.
Like many young people who grow up in small rural communities, Eric upon graduation from Chester High was eager to leave and experience more of the world, so he joined the Army. Stationed three years in Germany during the Cold War, Eric O’Kelley has vivid memories of the Berlin Wall and the stark contrast of East and West Berlin. After his tour of duty, he spent time in Sacramento, working in construction and going to school. It was in Sacramento where he reconnected with a high school friend from Chester, who eventually became his wife, Aletha. Marriage and starting a family got him serious about finishing his education at Sacramento State, but he soon learned that a major in Biology didn’t necessarily prepare him for a career that interested him. Growing up in the Almanor Basin, he had developed a love of the outdoors. This started him thinking about a career in forestry, and after two summers working for the Forest Service in Susanville and seasonal jobs with Collins Pine, he was hired full time and continues today as a Forrester for the Collins Pine Company. “It was important for me to leave and experience new places, but it clarified my desire to come back and live here, surrounded by the beauty of the Almanor Basin.”
Since then, this third generation Chester resident has lived here his entire adult life. That’s good news for Chester, as Eric O’Kelley has become the community’s strongest supporter of youth soccer. His volunteering didn’t start with soccer. Eric and his wife Aletha organized and ran the 4th of July Fun Run for nearly a decade. The current race director, Shane Bergman, gives huge credit to the O’Kelleys for developing the popular race event and for their ongoing support of the program.
So how did O‘Kelley become so involved with soccer? Growing up, he played all sorts of sports – football, baseball, basketball, track, and wrestling – but never soccer. He admits to knowing very little about it in the beginning, and became involved in the sport as his daughters took to the game. Wanting to be an involved parent, he started coaching his oldest daughter, and the more he learned, the more he appreciated the fluidity of a game not structured around set plays. His self-education began with videos and reading all he could. But it was O’Kelly’s decision to actively surround himself with knowledgeable coaches who could mentor him that kick-started his coaching skills. He gives huge credit to Craig Butcher, part-time resident in the Almanor Basin who coaches at Santa Rosa Community College. Butcher stepped in to mentor Eric in the finer points of the game.
Today O’Kelley is in his 11th year coaching. The time spent on the field is only a fraction of what it takes behind the scenes to keep the program running smoothly.
Just ask Alison Mahaffey, co-captain of this year’s CHS girls soccer team. “He is always prepared for every practice, every game, and every event. He even comes to practices with all his notes for the day’s routines typed out. He gets to practices early to set up drills, sometimes crazy obstacle courses that must take a half hour to set up. And he does all the field prepping, painting, equipment ordering – the time he spends is incredible. Not to mention how often he pays for things for the program out of his own pocket.”
The high school program has all the challenges of a small rural mountain community. First and foremost is finding teams to play during the fall, when Chester weather permits, while the logical league to join (Chico and the teams along the I-5) plays during the winter months. Currently they play each team in their three-team league four times, and he organizes scrimmages with other teams to provide practice, experience and diversity. O’Kelley believes good coaching and an environment that attracts athletes to the program is more important than being part of a league with many teams,
In addition to time on the field, O’Kelley fund raises, purchases and manages all the uniforms and equipment, orders supplies for field maintenance, and creates schedules. As for a coaching stipend, sometimes it’s there, sometimes not. In a small community, fundraising is challenging and requires creativity and a giving base of merchants who unfortunately get hit hard.“ This community is amazing in their support of the youth programs”, says O’Kelley.
Central to it all, he believes that the coaches must come to their role with heart for the kids. “They respond to that,” he says. Clearly the message is getting to the players. Brenda Lemons, his assistant coach of 6 years, gives O’Kelley credit for building the program. “In all the years I have been involved with Chester High School sports, either as a parent or assisting Eric, I have not met or observed a more positive role model and example for our kids.” The girls love playing for him. Co-captain and star goalie Alison Mahaffey gives O’Kelly all the credit for building a strong and dedicated team. “He inspires simply by the role model he is for us: dedicated, calm under pressure, encouraging, and a man who leads by example”. On the field, he includes everyone: even the less experienced girls get playing time. At team dinners held every week during the season, parents are included. Mahaffey says “Coach creates a place where we not only learn how to be better players, but to value our fitness and to be a part of a place where we experience joy and a sense of belonging. “
Senior Antonia Marro, team captain, says “it is so cool that even with the time commitments of his own family and his work, he is always willing to put in extra time coaching me, and he is great just to talk things through with.” Antonia will play soccer this fall for Lassen College, and she gives huge credit to O’Kelley for his guidance and efforts on her behalf in making that happen.
That Chester has a recreational spring soccer program at all is due largely to the creative idea O’Kelly came up with after it became increasingly difficult to host a league through the Northern Sierra Youth Soccer organization. Closely tied to Susanville’s program, travel distances and a declining economy made it difficult to continue. So the sponsorship of the program was picked up by ARPD, which provides the umbrella insurance required as well as financing.
O’Kelley created the idea of a more fluid and relaxed format for all kids wanting to play. There are three age groupings – K-3rd, 4th – 7th and 8th – 12th. The kids show up, two are picked as captains to form teams, and the games are short. This pick-up structure, reminiscent of the old days of sand-lot baseball, makes for a very flexible and unpressured format. It is especially great for kids new to soccer. “The younger age group focuses on drills, skill building and short scrimmages. The parent support for the program is strong, and the community help is amazing – the number of fundraisers and private donations is truly inspiring” says O’Kelley.
As the program has evolved, the one constant has been O’Kelley’s presence and leadership in it all. Participation is strong and focuses on the joy of the game and the development of skills, not on a win-loss record. The youth of this community would say that O’Kelley’s heart is, truly, in the right place.