CHELMSFORD — After 25 years and 320 wins, Mike O’Keefe has decided to step down as the head varsity baseball coach at Chelmsford High School.
Since 1995, O’Keefe guided the Lions to a Division 1 North Sectional championship in 2015, six Merrimack Valley Conference titles and was the Sun’s Coach of the Year five times.
From 2011 to this past season, O’Keefe had a combined record of 119-80, made eight state tournament appearances, including reaching the sectional final in 2014, losing to Andover, 6-3. Then, the following year, Chelmsford defeated Lawrence, 6-4, in the epic, 11-inning sectional championship game that lasted until 1:34 in the morning before losing to Norwood, 3-2 in the state semifinal game.
This past season, the Lions finished 15-8 and posted two tournament wins before losing to Lincoln-Sudbury, 5-4, in the D1 North Sectional semifinals.
“I have two children and my son is going to a freshman at Tyngsboro High School and my daughter is going into the middle school and they both are very active in sports,” O’Keefe said about his decision. “The hard part about coaching at any level is the commitment it takes to do it the right way, at least that’s what I think. As a varsity coach, it takes a lot of time and the kids put in a lot of time and effort, so you want to make sure that you are there for them since they are putting in their time and effort.
“To keep it simple as possible, you can’t be in two places at once. There’s no other way to say it. If I have a game in Chelmsford, I can’t be in Tyngsboro at the same time. Now that my kids are getting older, you realize that they are not going to playing (sports) forever and it becomes a little bit more valuable for you to be a part of it.”
Chelmsford High Athletic Director Dan Hart was heartbroken over the news, but certainly understood O’Keefe’s reasoning.“We have been talking about it,” said Hart. “His kids are getting older and he wants to be there for them and, like he said, you don’t get a second chance for that.
“Mike loves Chelmsford High School baseball, but he loves Chelmsford High School more than anyone I know. He loves to coach. He’s the best guy to be around and just always such a class act. He felt like he couldn’t give it his all and he couldn’t fully commit, so he decided to step down. It’s going to be a real tough loss for us, for sure. I can’t say enough about the kind of person and coach that he is, and I respect the hell out of him for knowing that being a dad comes first.”
Hart knew first-hand exactly what kind of coach O’Keefe is when the two paired up together on the basketball court, working under Charlie Micol, from whom O’Keefe said he learned so much about coaching. In addition to being the head varsity baseball coach, O’Keefe was the JV boys’ coach from 1997 to 2010, and for several of those years Hart served as O’Keefe’s assistant.
“Mike can coach any sport,” said Hart. “He teaches life lessons. He teaches the importance of team and how doing the small things will lead into big things. That’s always been so important to him.
“He gets kids to believe in themselves and achieve so much more than they ever thought they could. He is very motivational. He’s tough on kids, but in a way because he has high expectations for them.
“No one loves kids more than him. He just does things in such a positive way because he believes in the kids so much. He’s just such a special guy and a special coach.”
O’Keefe was a two-time Sun All-Star as a baseball player in 1986 and ’87, and was also the captain of the basketball team and helped lead both squads to MVC titles during his senior year. From there, he went on to Assumption College and was a three- time All-American.
In 1989, he was the Triple Crown winner of the NE-10, batting .471 with 10 home runs, while knocking in 45. At the time of his NE-10 Hall of Fame induction in 2006, he still held six NE-10 Division records, including 242 hits and 402 total bases, and he had three records at Assumption, while finishing his career with a .427 batting average.
He since has been enshrined into the Assumption College Athletic Hall of Fame as well as the Chelmsford Alumni Association’s HOF.After graduating and starting his professional career in Worcester, he came back to teach social studies at CHS and quickly jumped into coaching. In 1999, the Lions were led by Adam McCusker, who went on to have a terrific career at UMass Lowell.
During those early years, O’Keefe remembers battles with McCusker and the other players … but not on the diamond.
“We had a pingpong table in our team room and people weren’t on their phones or playing video games back then and you needed something to do,” he said with a laugh. “That was different and it was funny because I was obviously a lot younger, I didn’t have kids of my own and everybody was very competitive. I was competitive and I didn’t want to lose to them and they didn’t want to lose to me. It just made it a very competitive atmosphere all-around.”
That same year, the Lions defeated MVC rival Andover.
“Both teams had great teams and we won in the bottom of the seventh inning with two outs,” he said. “Games like that are the things that stick out, but it’s also fair to say that a lot of kids stick out. When they come back and they thank you, you get some perspective. I think those are the kinds of things that I will miss the most.”
Another game that stuck out was that epic sectional final against Lawrence played at LeLacheur Park just four years ago.
“That’s one that a lot of people will always remember. That was a lot of fun,” he said. “Getting over so late is the first part of it and, if my memory serves me correctly, Lawrence ran out to like a 6-0 lead or something like that. I was really proud of my kids for not panicking and just grinding it out for all seven innings.
“Lawrence was a great team and so were we, but we ended up doing just enough to come out with the win.”
Wins came often for O’Keefe and the program, but if you ask him, that wasn’t what it was all about.
“I think I’m probably pretty intense,” he admitted. “I want things done a certain way and I expect things to be done a certain way. I just want the kids to compete hard, play hard and we just try to take care of all of the small things and pay attention to detail. That’s what we try to do, and I think the kids really bought into that.
“I’ve been so fortunate to have such tremendous young men, a very supportive community, and I can’t ask for anything more than what I had coaching in Chelmsford. I was very, very lucky.
“Yes, we won a lot of games, but I don’t necessarily look at the success based upon wins. My assistant coach said it best today when he said we helped turned a lot of young people into men. That’s something we can be very proud of, because there’s been a lot of people who played a role into that.
“I had outstanding JV and freshman coaches and I was blessed with Scott Anderson and (the late) Harry Ayotte, who worked with me for years. I couldn’t possibly have had two better people than them.”
O’Keefe now joins a handful of former outstanding coaches in the Merrimack Valley Conference who have stepped down recently, including Marc Pelletier at Central Catholic and Ron Drouin at Tewksbury.
“I think the MVC is a great league and the coaches do things the right way,” said O’Keefe. “Everybody plays the game hard, kids learn the right way and those are some types of things that I’m going to miss. Not just the MVC, but I’m going to miss the tough non-league games that we played every year. Those are going to be the things I’ll miss, but I’m going to have to fill the void in another way and hopefully I’ll be able to.
“I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be at Chelmsford High School on Monday back teaching, so I’ll be around. At this point in time with everybody involved, certainly for myself, my family and the commitment that it takes to do things the way that you want them to be done, I firmly believe that this is the right decision.
“It doesn’t mean that I’ll never coach again, because I love coaching, but it is what it is. I’ll focus on the next challenge and we’ll see what that brings.”