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Devin O’Neill looks to start new chapter in UMass men’s soccer

(Thom Kendall/UMass Athletics)

(Thom Kendall/UMass Athletics)

The Massachusetts men’s soccer team received sad news on July 20, 2014, when longtime head coach Sam Koch died after a two-year battle with sinus cancer.

Replacing Koch, the head coach at UMass for the past 23 seasons, is Devin O’Neill, who was named the interim head coach after serving two seasons as an assistant for the Minutemen.

However, O’Neill’s connection to UMass dates further back than his 2012 hiring.

After graduating from Middlebury College in 1991 as a three-sport athlete, O’Neill promptly reached out to Koch – who was then entering his first year at the helm for the Minutemen – to express his interest in an assistant coaching role on Koch’s staff.

Although this first interaction did not result in O’Neill’s employment at UMass, it served as a launching pad for the lasting relationship that was formed between O’Neill and Koch that grew as O’Neill built up his coaching resume elsewhere.

“Later on in my career, we were able to reconnect numerous times on the recruiting trail,” O’Neill said. “We would chat and develop a very good friendship.”

This connection culminated in 2012 when Minutemen assistant coach Roy Fink was named the head coach at the University of New Haven, leaving an opening on Koch’s coaching staff. Anticipating the existing vacancy, O’Neill once again contacted Koch and was chosen to succeed Fink.

“The timing was everything,” O’Neill said. “I was looking to get my family back east and [UMass] was a wonderful opportunity.”

Two years later, O’Neill – a West Springfield native who grew up less than an hour away from Amherst – acknowledged the significance of landing a leading job so close to his childhood home and at a university that has “always had an important place” in his family.

O’Neill said his parents became highly involved in UMass sports shortly after he finished his college career at Middlebury.  O’Neill noted his family’s interest in the basketball team and its successful run under coach John Calipari in the 1990’s.

“I really enjoyed the many successes of UMass athletics from a distance through my parents,” O’Neill said. “It is really special for a western Massachusetts kid to be here coaching at UMass. There’s no question.”

An easy transition

Upon learning about Koch’s death, O’Neill said that he made sure to contact each member of the team to ensure them of the “strong support network” behind them.

Senior forward Josh Schwartz was among the group of players who were grateful for O’Neill’s support.

“He’s just been there for me during this difficult time,” Schwartz said. “I’m thankful that he’s been as helpful as he has been.”

Senior defender/forward Matt Keys added that while he believes Koch’s death hasn’t fully sunk in yet, O’Neill’s promotion was “calming” since he was a familiar face on the staff and had taken an authoritative role in the past two years when Koch was undergoing treatment.

“I was able to fairly easily step in and do what was needed to be done because I had a good wealth of experience to fall back on,” O’Neill said. “I was happy to do that and I hope that it helped [Koch] in a small part.”

O’Neill has prior head coaching experience at East Carolina University for four years (1999-2002) and at Division III Gettysburg College for seven seasons (2003-2010). However, he said that his role as an assistant coach at UMass and his previous assistant position at Bradley University (2010-2012) has shown him the importance of developing personal connections with individual players.

“Sometimes as a head coach you are dealing with so many big ticket items that some of the personal interactions get sacrificed,” O’Neill said. “So I think that maintaining these relationships is the thing that I want to do the best job of.”

Keys said that the familiarity with O’Neill will also relieve any stress associated with transitioning from Koch’s “quirky” personality to a more serious tone from O’Neill.

“Coach Koch’s personality probably rubbed off a little on Coach O’Neill but [O’Neill] is very serious, which is good, because we need that too at times,” Keys said. “He has a nice middle ground in being a tough coach and being a good friend who you can go and talk to about school, your life, or soccer of course.”

O’Neill acknowledged that he is not aiming to be a “duplicate or copy” of Koch when it comes to his coaching style or personality.

“As I move forward, I think the balance that has to be struck is to be very respectful, to be aware of the past and the things that [Koch] built this program on, and to coach the values that he coached for a couple of decades,” O’Neill said. “But also, it’s important that I be myself.”

 Looking forward

The Minutemen ended their 2013 season with a loss to Saint Louis in the first round of the Atlantic 10 tournament after sneaking into the playoffs as the eighth and final seed. Despite the coaching change, the team’s preseason goals of making it further in the A-10 tournament remains unaltered, according to Schwartz.

“With Coach Koch or with Coach O’Neill, we have always had the same goals and we’re still going to push for the same things,” Schwartz said. “I think [O’Neill] is the right person to lead us as we move into this next stage of UMass soccer.”

Keys added that the change has only strengthened these expectations.

“It only reinforced how much we want to complete them,” Keys said. “We want to do it for [Koch] and make him proud and play as hard as he and Coach O’Neill would both want us to play.”

O’Neill took a different perspective when reviewing the team’s preseason outlook saying that his goals are “pretty general and process-oriented.”

“I’m not trying to be evasive in any way, but I really don’t have any expectations in terms of wins and losses or overall record,” O’Neill said.  “I just want us to really be a hardworking and competitive group that takes pride in wearing the UMass uniform.”

Anthony Chiusano can be reached at achiusano@umass.edu and can be followed on Twitter @a_chiusano24.

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