When Kyle Keenan tossed his stick into the air and joined his Long Island teammates in an on-field celebratory pileup after they’d won the Empire State Games gold medal in Buffalo on July 25, there was one spectator in particular who was overcome with emotions. Mixed emotions at that.
Keenan’s father, Sean, his youth coach since the second grade and his high school coach at Smithtown West since the ninth grade, was in the uncomfortable position of outsider. “When he was one of the key players in the gold medal game , I was never more proud of my son,” Sean Keenan said. “But it was very hard to watch from the stands. I was like a fish out of water.”
But both are back in their natural habitat now, as Keenan is one of the big fish in the Smithtown West pond, where his father is the coach and where the Bulls hope to unseat seven-time county Class A champion West Islip.
“The goal is a state title,” said Keenan, a returning 93-point attack who will play at Duke next year. “We’re very confident even though we know how great West Islip is. My friends on the team have played together since the second grade. We’ve talked about this being ‘the year.’ ”
Ever since Keenan was promoted to the varsity as a freshman, along with James Pannell, the Bulls’ other star and a grade behind Keenan, the father-son dynamic has been scrutinized in one of Long Island’s hotbed lacrosse communities.
“There’s been pressure playing for my Dad since the second grade,” Keenan said. “You’re under a magnifying glass. At times, it’s been stressful. I always felt I had to be better, especially my freshman year. He took a risk taking James, an eighth-grader, and me, a ninth-grader, to the varsity.”
The two hooked up for the game-tying goal in the county semifinals that year and their spots on the varsity were no longer in question. But that doesn’t mean Keenan gets any special treatment from his father. “He’ll never hesitate to yell at me,” Keenan said with a sheepish grin. “On the field, we have a different relationship than in the car ride home. In practice, he’s Coach. At home, he’s Dad.”
Coach Keenan acknowledged the divide. “I always tried to separate lacrosse from being a dad,” Keenan said. “Kyle is a kid who listens to what his coach and his parents say. He made it very easy to coach him.”
Kyle Keenan not only wants to bring his father a state title, he wants to improve his game for the rigors of playing at defending NCAA champion Duke. “You go there and you realize everyone is good, so I have to work on my weaknesses,” said Keenan, citing the need to get bigger and stronger and work more on his one-on-one finishing moves.
He committed to the Blue Devils in his junior year because he was impressed with the campus, the lacrosse program and coach John Danowski. “He made me feel comfortable,” Keenan said, “and he liked the fact that I played three sports. ”
The player bonded with Danowski on another level. “He coached his son [Matt]. I liked that,” Keenan said.