“Could this be real?” Coginchaug High School boys' tennis coach Karen Kean asked when she found out that she'd been named “Outstanding Coach of the Year" by the CIAC.
“At first I held onto the letter for a week without telling anyone,” says Kean. “I went to [Athletic Director] Ted Lombardo and he told me it was the real deal.”
Kean, who first became interested in playing tennis when she had a sudden desire to own her first racquet in high school, has been coaching at Coginchaug for more than two decades. She started out coaching the girls' team in the fall of 1984 and switched to the boys' team the following spring. Though Kean was initially denied the boys coaching position by then Athletic Director Wally Camp because she was a female, the job opened up a year later. With support of a close friend, she took on the role.
“The boys had a winning season that year. As far as I know from the previous coach, they had not won a match so it was very rewarding," she says. "It was awesome.”
Kean, like her players, has worked to improve as a coach by attending coaching courses, as well as studying film on technique and skill building fundamentals.
In 2011, the team graduated eleven seniors. Kean, forced to rebuild the team, took on the new challenge of teaching the game to 13 players who'd never played tennis competitively before.
“It is my job to teach them how to play,” she says. “I love teaching beginners. I am patient.”
Her passion for the sport is evident not only through her coaching ability, but also through the excitement she gets out of teaching the game to students.
“I’m always happy that the kids come out. I have a great connections with the kids. I try to be flexible because I don’t want the kids not to play tennis. I never make cuts, however, if a kid decides to cut himself I always say to try another sport.”
Each year, Kean sets a team goal of finishing .500, which allows the team to qualify for states. But at the end of the day, winning is just part of playing.
“My goal for the kids is to learn the game, work hard, and have fun," she says.
Her strong relationship with the players and dedication to the game are all traits that Coginchaug girl’s tennis coach, Amy Schafer, says are why Kean is deserving of the award.
“She works extremely well with those boys and has been doing it for so many years,” Schafer says. “She puts so much effort into it that I know personally and professionally it means a lot to her to be recognized for something that she has worked so hard for.”
The recognition, Schafer believes, is also good for the sport itself.
“It gives validity to what we coach because sometime you are taken for granted as tennis coaches, so it has given what we do a better look.”
Lombardo agreed, saying the award “speaks well for our program.”
Kean admits that the award was a surprise since the team has not won a Shoreline Conference or state title. Nonetheless, CIAC representative Joe Fontana acknowledges that it is not always about winning.
“It’s just like a dream come true,” says Kean. “That was another ‘wow’ moment for me because they recognized me for my coaching.”
During the renovation of Coginchuag’s track and athletic facilities, Sherry Hill, a long time friend and co-worker with the town of Durham’s recreation program, shared that Kean raised about 2,500 dollars for the new tennis courts.
“She wanted to make sure her players were getting the best,” Hill says. “She cares so much about the community and the kids, which is why I know it means a lot to her.”
It is quite evident that people recognize Kean not only for her passion for the sport of tennis, but also for her support of the community.
“She does a lot for the community so it's nice to finally have her recognized for that,” Schafer says. “I think it means a lot to her to finally be noticed for the hard work she has been doing and everything she does for everyone else.”
William Currlin, a former member of the Regional School District 13 Board of Education and a close friend, summed up Kean’s honorable coaching talents and acceptance of the worthy award by saying,
“Of all the data that measures a person’s accomplishments, wins and losses, are held only in the record books. The true measure of Karen Kean’s coaching lies in the lessons that she instilled in the soul of the athlete. Not a record of the wins and ‘not wins’ but, a victory that lies in the message she gives the student. She teaches confidence in the face of challenge, enlightenment in the body of defeat, passion for the sport and even more, the compassion to be a good sportsman.”
Karen Kean will be awarded “Outstanding Coach of the Year” on May 10th at the Aqua Turf Cub in Plantsville.