FRONT ROYAL – The reality started to sink in for Matt Keel as the days ticked away during the Disney Duals last week.
He would later recall that he didn’t go into the annual AAU scholastic wrestling tournament in Orlando, Florida as any kind of emotional wreck. Yet when he guided his Skyline Wrestling Club team into the weeklong event’s final day on June 28, the magnitude of the moment struck him.
Keel looked back on that moment earlier this week and remembered watching his wrestlers prepare for their final dual of the tournament. It was at that time he turned to his assistant coaches and said, “Right here, this is the last dual. This is it, the last time I’m gonna coach Skyline.”
Indeed, after 11 seasons serving as the only head wrestling coach Skyline High School has known, Keel is stepping away to take the same job at Chantilly High School for the upcoming school year.
Keel’s intentions were made public a month ago, and the weeks of training for the Disney Duals, and the subsequent week spent at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, served as a last hurrah for the Hawks under their longtime head coach.
In hindsight, Keel considers the opportunity to lead his wrestlers onto the mat one final time a blessing. But in the same breath he admitted that had he known earlier that the Chantilly job would be his, he likely wouldn’t have made the trip to Florida because of the “super awkward,” emotional situation that was created as members of the Skyline Wrestling Club – the high school team’s offseason program – trained for their upcoming trip.
Keel had coached some of those wrestlers since they were as young as 6 years old, and when he informed them of his impending departure a week into their month-long training for Disney Duals it opened up an “upsetting” atmosphere for all involved.
“I had people bought into a vision,” Keel said. “I’d been selling a vision and we’re not there yet. The vision is win state titles, bring team trophies home from states, and this group was gonna do it and I was gonna be there with them. So I was selling this vision that everybody had bought into and everybody had given up, made huge personal family sacrifices to follow this vision, and now I’m leaving.”
It’s a tough reality for Skyline’s wrestling program. Keel himself admitted, “I don’t want to leave” and said he’s doing so for financial reasons, adding that he’s “super thankful” to Warren County Public Schools administrators and believes superintendent Greg Drescher is fighting for higher teaching salaries in the county.
What Keel leaves behind for newly appointed head coach Kyle Symons is a Skyline wrestling program that has Keel’s fingerprints all over it.
A Florida native who bounced around to several different teaching and assistant coaching jobs – including coaching stints at Brentsville and Fauquier high schools – Keel landed his first head coaching job when Skyline opened in 2007 following the split of Warren County High School.
He recalled that during the interview process he asked Skyline administrators a series of questions: Was the wrestling room a true wrestling room or an auxiliary gym? Could he set his own schedule? Could he do fundraisers and start a youth wrestling program?
Keel was pleasantly surprised when administrators responded positively to each of his questions, and when he accepted the job he was given the freedom to run his program as he saw fit.
Skyline athletic director Bill Cupp wrote in an email last week that “all aspects of our program were designed, developed and implemented” by Keel, including the tournaments the Hawks participated in, the team’s offseason workout programs and the formation of the Skyline Wrestling Club and Front Royal Raptors youth program.
That freedom had been what Keel was searching for when he was on the job hunt in 2007 – he’d always wanted to start a brand-new team, he said – but the idea was also a daunting one.
“I had this huge feeling like everything was going to be this huge precedent,” Keel said. “Whatever I did, I had to think through. It was a much bigger deal. I got way too excited or way too upset about anything that didn’t go just right because I thought to myself ‘anything I do is gonna be how we do it.’”
Over Keel’s 11 seasons, Skyline won the Northwestern District tournament twice (in 2012-13 and again in 2013-14) and was the Region II tournament runner-up in 2012-13, a year in which the Hawks also went 16-1 in duals.
Two Hawks – Justin Williams (2013) and Gerren Butler (2015) – won state titles during Keel’s tenure, and Skyline also had five state runners-up, 11 regional champions and 24 district/conference champs during that time.
“It was a great, great job,” Keel said. “It was a great position. I feel like it couldn’t have been a better place for me to start my head-coaching career.”
Keel, who said he’s evolved as a coach as the kids he presides over have changed, recalled experiencing a mix of good and bad in the early years at Skyline. He praised his inaugural team for its drive to win state titles, but he said he also clashed at times with other Skyline coaches – with whom he’s since developed strong friendships – and remembered his insistence on scheduling matches against far superior competition drawing the ire of some parents.
“I think the people that really got to know me understand that I will fight and I will accidentally, occasionally step on toes and upset people,” Keel said. “But I’m always trying to do what’s best for the kids. I’m always trying to (figure out), what do these guys need in order to achieve?”
Keel has always tried to take a two-pronged approach to his coaching, he said, meaning that he’s tried to accommodate wrestlers who fell into two distinct categories – those chasing success and state titles, and those who were only in the sport for the experience and character development.
Keel’s “long sell,” he said, was the Front Royal Raptors youth program, which began with 18 kids in 2008 and grew to include as many as 90 young wrestlers one season.
“That was always the mission of the Front Royal Raptors, was to coach every kid and just make wrestling in the community better, to give that opportunity to more kids no matter where they were gonna go to school,” Keel said.
“I think we did a really good job, and we also ended up being really competitive. I couldn’t have done that without this super-helpful group of guys and ladies and team moms and coaches that ended up helping.”
Keel said the Raptors will continue to operate in his absence.
“Right now there’s really good people,” he said. “What’s funny about that is … once they discovered the amount of things I did, they set up a board in order to make sure everything got done. I’m friends with the people that are continuing it all, and like I said, they’re super-qualified. I think that they’re gonna be successful. I really do.”
Keel holds that same optimism for a varsity squad coming off a 2017-18 season in which the Hawks set program records for dual wins (25) and state tournament qualifiers (11). Fourteen of Skyline’s 17 varsity wrestlers were freshmen and sophomores last winter, and Keel said the current group could “easily” become the most successful wrestling team Skyline has had.
When he and the Hawks broke it down one last time in Orlando last week, Keel said he reiterated the points he’s driven home to his wrestlers since the beginning. He wants his wrestlers to take personal pride and responsibility in their achievements, he said, despite all the assistance – from coaches, parents and others – that help them get there, and to understand that any instances of tough love on Keel’s part stemmed more from his concern about seeing them as productive adults at age 25 than from being their friend when they’re 16.
“A lot of them may not understand why I’m leaving, and a lot of them might understand on a brain level but (on a) heart level they’re still hurt. And I get that,” Keel said. “But I hope that this group also is gonna be able to look back at all the time I spent with them and be able to see as adults that I had a positive influence on their life, but more importantly they understand why I’m leaving, too. I hope nobody carries that as a long-term thing.
“It is tough,” he added, “but it’s a good group of guys. … If everything can stay on track, and I think it will, there’s a lot of success (to come).”