Nobody could have blamed the Ridge High School girls soccer team if it had an off year in 2015. With a graduating class that included one of the program’s all-time great players in Jenny Haskel (Northwestern), this could have been a down season for the Red Devils, coming off a trip to the sectional final last season.
But when you have a program stocked with talent and a coach in Katie Donahue who has a chessmaster’s understanding of the game, and 2015 quickly went from rebuilding to historic.
“I remember early on in the season being a little bit too excited and then thinking we have such a far way to go that I don’t want to get too excited yet,” said Donahue, the 2015 Courier News Girls Soccer Coach of the Year, whose team finished 23-0-1, winning the Skyland Conference Delaware Division, the Somerset County Tournament and North 2 Group IV, before claiming the state Group IV co-championship. “People would ask me about the team and I found myself just kind of smiling and thinking there’s just something unique about this team.”
Her journey from Connecticut native to Ridge head coach wasn’t exactly a direct or logical route. After graduating from Boston College, Donahue spent a year doing volunteer work in the Philadelphia area when her then-boyfriend — now husband — got a job in Basking Ridge. And when he told her how good the soccer program was at Ridge and that there was an opening for a teacher at the middle school, the rest, as they say, was history.
Donahue joined the Red Devils as a volunteer assistant in 2003, as Ridge went 22-0 and won the state Group III title with a team that featured future Team USA World Cup champion Tobin Heath. After a year as the freshman coach and then two as the varsity assistant under former head coach Todd Hebden, Donahue took the reins in 2007 and, along with longtime assistant coach Jessica Musumeci, has done a phenomenal job keeping up the fine tradition of one of the state’s most successful program, taking her team to four NJSIAA Group IV finals in her nine years at the helm.
Always looking to make the most of her players’ ability and versatility, Donahue has never been shy about moving things around, from game to game and even from minute to minute, looking to exploit matchups and use the Ridge system to the best of her players’ ability. This year’s team, with versatile, veteran players like seniors Erin Convery, Shannon Keefe, Chrissy Weyrauch and Brielle Farrell leading the way on the field, and a veteran presence like senior keeper Sam Carney in net, Donahue had even more fun.
“As a coach – like a game of chess — you look at the tactical components of it and you realize there’s a lot of things you can do, and then figure out a way not to have it get messed up,” Donahue said. “For us, it’s always trying to figure out what our formation is going to be, how can we be more offense. And we figured out we’re going to play a diamond midfield in a 4-4-2, which let us have more of our central midfielders get touches on the ball without having to use them out on the flank, which is not their strength. Once we figured out we had a lot of people who could contribute to a balanced attack, and then knowing in certain games we’d have to switch to a traditional if we were getting exposed on the flanks, it was fun.”
But her Xs and Os aren’t the only thing that makes her such a good coach or makes her players love playing for her. Donahue has a genuine love for the game and a love for her players. It’s evident in the way she approaches every contest, her enthusiasm on the sideline and, if you talk to her players, the way she is at every practice.
“She makes you love the game,” said Convery, a four-year starter headed for her coach’s alma mater at BC. “Freshman year when I came in, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. High school soccer is very different than club soccer. I didn’t really know her as a coach or the other players that well, so just coming in and having her coaching with such enthusiasm and making it so fun for the girls, at the same time we’re winning games and it’s intense, was just awesome for me. She really is able to find that balance with her players and really has that personal connection with all of us. Doesn’t matter what age you are or how much you play, she cares for you just as much.”
“Playing for Katie Donahue, it’s awesome,” Shannon Keefe said. “She’s so upbeat, she’s so energetic. She teaches at the middle school, so she’ll come from the middle school ready to play with us and she’s so excited and it keeps us motivated. It keeps me motivated.”
Donahue will find herself in a similar situation late next summer, with an uber-talented senior class having departed but plenty of talented soccer players remaining or entering the program. So while it might be hard to top everything the Red Devils accomplished this year, with players like juniors Julia Lindsey, Ally Friedman, Anna Hess and Amanda Cox, and sophomores Maddy Liu and Erin Keefe, the foundation is set. And there’s little doubt Donahue will find a way to build a strong team on top of it.
“Let’s be honest; to be undefeated in our county and in our conference, I don’t know if that can ever be done again,” Donahue said. “So in terms of expectations for future, I think anything next year is going to seem like a drop off because it will be kind of impossible to repeat exactly what we did this year. That being said, I think our goal of playing good soccer and being competitive in every game, I think that’s a reasonable goal.”
Simeon Pincus can be reached at CNGirlsSoccer@aol.com and on Twitter @SimeonPincus