Still home recuperating, coach Bob Keating's spirit and legacy guides Nazareth

Posted: May 21, 2012

In the last two softball seasons, the man who once was an ever-present figure has been absent from the Nazareth Academy bench.

Bob Keating's old-school flair no longer sparks the Nazareth players. The stern shouts that breed discipline and the quirky sayings that induce laughter - "hit it to the grass" and "strong like bull" are shortstop Mel Kalesse's favorites - no longer are heard on Grant Avenue.

As the 17-3 Pandas prepare for this week's PIAA District 1 playoffs, the 60-year-old Keating remains at his Bucks County home recovering from triple-bypass surgery. He occasionally sends e-mails for his two jobs: to customers for sales and to Nazareth's co-interim coaches, Brian Kalesse and Ray Keough, for updates on his beloved team.

Each win Kalesse and Keough accumulate - and the wins are plenty for the six-time defending Athletic Association of Catholic Academies champions - goes toward Keating's career total, which sits at 291. Because while the Pandas' head coach since 1998 has yet to return in body, "This is his team," Kalesse said.

His philosophies still pervade what Kalesse called a "very businesslike" program. Work hard, manage your time, do well in school, "and the softball will come," Keating said of his outlook.

"He worked us really hard," junior first baseman Kate O'Sullivan said, "and we always won."

Coaches ask about him during league meetings. Umpires ask about him during games. "Everybody knows Bob," Keough marveled.

It was his team for eight AACA and two District 1 championships. It was his team last March, when - before the Pandas' defense of four consecutive league titles began - he felt intense heartburn during a preseason practice.

Then assistants, Kalesse and Keough took over practice.

"He kept sitting on the bench and saying, 'I don't feel good,' " Keough recalled.

"He put down like a whole bottle of Tums," Kalesse said.

When Keating returned home, he felt dizzy. When he arrived at the emergency room, where his wife drove him, he had a heart attack.

His players were told he would be back in the middle of the season. Instead, the close-knit program thrived as it always thrived, with parents filling in to coach their children.

Joe Cipolloni returned as head coach, having already sent two daughters, two time all-staters Erica and Giannina, to the University of Virginia. Keough's daughter, Alicia, who batted .464 during her high school career, played at Pittsburgh. Kalesse's daughter, Siena-bound Mel, leads the Pandas' current rip-and-run attack with a .500 average and 37 stolen bases.

Combined, the two interim coaches have almost 20 years of coaching experience and two complementary coaching styles.

"My dad's pretty hard, so we didn't really lose Bob. Mr. Keough is a sweetheart," Mel Kalesse said.

Familiarity has bred success ever since Keating coached his daughter, Christina, when he first took over the helm. Girls from Keating's travel team who were scoping out high schools gravitated toward Nazareth, then their friends did the same.

Before long, the small Catholic school in the Northeast had built a reputation as a softball power, drawing talent from fastpitch clubs across the tri-state area.

The talent allowed for a smooth transition from Keating to his assistants. Coaching Nazareth, Kalesse said, is like finding the right room for a "pretty painting."

"You're not really developing [the players]," he explained. "What you're doing is finding the right way to press cruise control and letting their talents come out."

When Keating considered a return last May, he saw a team that was headed for the No. 1 seed in districts, players who had grown accustomed to their coaches and coaches who had grown accustomed to their players.

He saw the foundations of the team he had constructed: the three-pitcher rotation, the airtight defense, the balanced lineup.

Some of what he saw was unfamiliar: the emphasis on contact over power hitting and, especially, the music and festivities and pomp and circumstance of Senior Day.

"None of this would've been there with me," Kalesse remembered Keating saying that day.

But other than a couple of sticking points - "he would let us know what we did wrong and make sure we didn't do it again," Mel Kalesse said of his visits - Keating saw no reason to fix what wasn't broken.

He left the team to his assistants, only to witness a stunning loss in the district quarterfinals. Then, after laying out plans in November to return this season, he suffered another blocked artery in December that led to surgery.

"The recovery period has been brutal," Keating said.

He has made it to only three or four games this season, but plans on returning next year. He has missed watching his team outscore opponents, 166 to 45, in 20 games; steal 121 bases while being caught just 13 times; and win 17 games in his honor.

"It's sad not having him for my senior year," Mel Kalesse said. "We still miss him."


Contact Brian Kotloff at bkotloff@phillynews.com.

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