By Mark Anderson
This past week, shock reverberated down the halls of Shepherd High School as head coach and athletic director Chip Keel resigned his position after four seasons to become the head coach and athletic director at Rusk High School.
As Isaiah Moye said, “I’m very surprised.” For Coach Keel, it simply was an opportunity he could not pass up.“I originally saw the facilities and I saw the way things were headed,” Coach Keel told The San Jacinto News-Times in an exclusive interview late Sunday evening. “I felt really good about the program and the way things were headed.”
“He noticed the potential in me. I love him for that.”
After going through both an informal process, which included meeting with the superintendent, and the formal process with the Rusk school board, Keel was offered the Athletic Director job.
Offensive coordinator Miles Robinson has been named interim athletic director for Shepherd high School, replacing Keel until a permanent successor—which does not exclude Robinson, by the way—can be found. Shepherd must now go through the process of posting that job for 14 days and then begin the search for Keel’s replacement, whether that be from within the program or outside it.
Coach Keel came to Shepherd in 2012, replacing Coach Bob Jones after an abysmal season in 2011. He moved Tyler Schlittenhardt from quarterback to wide receiver, and inserted senior Cody Everitt as the starting quarterback. The results spoke for themselves, as both players played well. Shepherd lost an epic game to Cleveland in overtime, and missed out on the playoffs.
In 2013, two young, unproven quarterbacks named Royce See and Zach Truelove began seeing time. Shepherd was one win away—and again, they lost to the Indians, this time in Cleveland. This time, the score was not close, and the result of being left out of the playoffs stung the Pirates and Coach Keel.
In 2014, Shepherd took out their frustrations on the Indians in the opening game of the season at “The Field of Pain,” when they handed the Indians a 34-0 loss. That victory propelled the Pirates to a great start. The toughest game that year was against Coldspring. The toughest loss of all, however, happened in the playoffs. Only a few plays separated Mexia and Shepherd on that night.
In what would turn out to be Coach Keel’s last season at Shepherd, Keel’s Pirates came out of the chute like gangbusters, and never slowed down. The moment of truth for Keel and the Pirates came when Royce See, who had been the starting quarterback, severely sprained his ankle. Zach Truelove, who had battled for the starting job each of the last few years, was inserted as the starter. Truelove began having good success, and led the Pirates to victory.
When See was healthy, Keel was faced with what outsiders saw as a difficult decision. However, Royce See made the decision to keep Truelove as the starting quarterback an easy one.
“My whole life I’ve never been a selfish player and he made it clear to me that I was an instant impact wherever they put me,” See, the future Bearkat, said. “When I came back Zach was playing at his best and the offense was really on a roll shifting from more of a run style offense before I got hurt to more of a passing style.” See understood that he could be an impact player at wide receiver. And See pointed out, “With me at receiver [it] gave the offense another go to threat to air out the ball.”
That decision—which mirrored the Schlittenhardt/Everitt decision four years before—paid big dividends for Shepherd the rest of the way out. With See and Truelove, the dividends were even bigger in reaching the state playoffs for the second year in a row—with the best record in the last 11 years, and probably much further back than that.
Coach Keel made an impact on his players in the four years he was at Shepherd. Royce See explained that impact was both on and off the field.
“He was a huge part of our success,” See told the News-Times. “From the time I got into high school my freshman year our program took a huge change in the way we did things—not only because of him but the rest of the coaching staff too.”
See shared that what brought change was the vision Keel had for Shepherd athletics. “Me and the rest of my senior class bought into the vision that they had for us,” See said late this week. “As him being the AD and the head coach everything ran through him.”
Keel’s impact did not stop on the field, however. “I personally looked up to him. He’s always been a great role model no matter what anyone says about him,” Royce said. “He’s always been someone that you could come to at any time for anything, and I can’t think of one time that he hasn’t.”
Royce summed up his feelings about Coach Keel’s impact when he said, “He’s the type of guy that everyone looks up to. I hate to see him leave, but he has definitely positively impacted not only our athletic program, but our community as well.”
Isaiah Moye also felt the impact of Coach Keel. “He noticed the potential in me. I love him for that.” Moye said.
Players felt that Coach Keel had made an impact on them. However, Coach Keel felt he had been impacted by Shepherd itself. “Shepherd made an impact on me,” Coach Keel said late Sunday evening.
The elephant in the room now is the future of Shepherd athletics. In closing, Keel was asked if he felt that he had laid a good foundation for Shepherd High athletics going forward.
“The last four years have been the moist successful years ever in Shepherd history,” Keel said. He pointed to the back-to back playoff appearances in football, as well as playoff appearances in other sports as well. “Depending on what choice they make for their next coach, the future is still bright for Shepherd.”