Tom O’Donnell has never seen himself as anything more than just a coach.
While he was instrumental in starting Lansdale Catholic’s girls soccer team and guiding it from club to varsity, then into the Pioneer Athletic Conference and later the Philadelphia Catholic League, O’Donnell won’t take credit for it. As he says, he couldn’t have done it without the countless players he’s had the last 25 years.
O’Donnell announced his retirement last week after 24 years as the varsity coach at LC following one year coaching the program as a club team.
“We had a lot of fun,” O’Donnell said. “That was for me as a coach and the assistants who were with me, for a number of years it was Armando Moral and this season Jamie Lancaster. It was always a nice interaction, I just enjoyed the people I was with and that’s the biggest thing that keeps a coach around.”
O’Donnell began his tenure at LC when Paul Duddy, now the boys’ soccer coach at North Penn, brought him in to be his JV and assistant coach for the Crusaders’ boys team. Even in the early 90s, many schools didn’t have girls soccer programs and several times, O’Donnell would coach against a JV side with a handful of female players.
With his own daughter about to enter high school, O’Donnell approached LC’s administration about starting a girls soccer program. He got the go-ahead to open it up as a club team, to gauge interest, and had nearly 40 girls come out that first year, enough to form de facto varsity and JV sides.
“I was one of those dads who looked around and said ‘I’ve got a daughter who plays soccer, so where’s the girls soccer team?’,” O’Donnell said. “I was very fortunate to catch the attention of the principal at the time, Sal DiNenna and he was amenable about us trying a girls team to see if it would catch on. It was an instant success. We were a club program in ’93 and there was a market there, you just had to provide the market, I just happened to be the right guy at the right time. The kids were all chomping to play on a girls team.”
O’Donnell credits all the girls, both those on his teams and those he coached against, for being pioneers and sticking with their passion even if they didn’t have the same opportunities. He noted a lot of very good players got “lost in the shuffle” in those early years but always made sure his JV players knew that any female players on opposing teams were worthy on being on the field.
With the overwhelming success of the club program, LC made girls soccer a varsity sport, where it competed as an independent in the spring season for a few years. Eventually, the PAC brought the team into the league and in 2002, LC switched from spring to fall which O’Donnell said was a huge help in scheduling games.
As the program took off, O’Donnell was able to experience it with his daughter along for the ride.
“That was the joy of my life, to be able to be there and watch my daughter play,” O’Donnell said. “I had also made the decision that when she graduated out, I didn’t want to be the coach who only showed up to promote his own kid. She went on her own way, she didn’t need me to follow her around. I felt like this was really something that was missing.”
So, O’Donnell stayed at LC, with assistants like Jim Burns and Dave Matten in the early years, followed by Moral and this season with Lancaster. With each new batch of athletes, O’Donnell felt it was best to maintain continuity and kept coming back year after year.
It also meant O’Donnell had to do a lot of manipulation with his time and schedule.
“I started thinking at some point I wanted to spend more of my vacation time with my family. That’s pretty much how I made the time to be a coach all these years, I was able to jimmy my work hours a little bit so I could leave early and get to the field but the last five or six years I really had to delve into the vacation time,” O’Donnell said. “I started to feel my energy level drop down and the last thing I want to do is just show up for practice and games. There’s a lot of out of season work that’s part of the deal anymore and if you’re not willing to do it, then you’re just shortchanging the program and the kids.”
For O’Donnell, it’s always been about the kids first. At Lansdale Catholic, he had plenty of standout players come through but the team survived thanks to the athletes who filled in other roles and improved with each passing season.
Even when LC left the PAC to join the Catholic League, the program didn’t drop off. In 24 years coaching varsity, O’Donnell saw both a rise in technical play and plenty of athletes representing the Crusaders in multiple sports.
“It’s a real thrill for any coach to see the kids improve in their time with you, what I’m really proud of is every year when we got to the season, I’d hear parents and players lament a group was graduating out and what were we going to do, I’d try to tell them not to worry, there was always talent,” O’Donnell said. “You’re just making room for the next wave of kids to step up. The 10 years in the Catholic League is probably easiest to point to, we’ve lost some really talented kids and the very next year we’re back in the league championship or at least the semifinals.”
O’Donnell said he’ll always remember the first team to go into the PCL because of how quickly they proved the program could compete right away. The first season, in 2008, O’Donnell remembered barely playing his starters because LC had been sorted into the smaller school division and simply dominating. After moving to the larger schools division the next season, LC didn’t miss a beat.
Since entering the PCL, the Crusaders have reached at least the league semifinals in every season.
“We had no idea what we were getting into,” O’Donnell said. “A lot of those girls returned the next year and we were in the ‘right’ division, the league made an adjustment just for us. That team for their senior year playing in the big school division, we were just as tough. That stuck out in my mind, we were for real and I was really proud of how they handled that.”
He’ll also always remember this year’s team for the way it rebounded from a crushing defeat in last year’s PCL final to get back to the championship game this season. O’Donnell said he didn’t want to be a distraction and didn’t tell the team it would be his last season until after the campaign concluded.
“A lot of people sold us short a little bit and thought the window of opportunity had shut after last year’s team,” O’Donnell said. “I told them all we were going to be fine this year and the undefeated league season proved that. That 08-09 group proved we belonged and this group was able to come back and put it back together, I’ll really remember those two.”
While he’s no longer LC’s coach, O’Donnell admitted it hasn’t completely sunk in yet.
“People around LC or around the soccer team, when I’d run into them, I’d start talking about next season by force of habit,” O’Donnell said. “I’m gushing to people about the talent, talking about next year and I’d have to catch myself. I have to back off and be quiet, it’s not my next year anymore.”
While O’Donnell is moving on from coaching, he said he probably won’t be able to stay away from LC games last season and joked he’s already got a folding chair ready to set up on the hill by the field and watch next fall. No matter who takes his spot, O’Donnell knows the program will continue to excel.
He never saw himself as more than a guy on the sideline. The true success of the program was always the players he coached every year.
“It’s really a testament to the girls coming in, they’re the heart and soul of it,” O’Donnell said. “This is really the achievement of the players.”
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