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Donal Kaehler, A Coach For Life
The Grizzlies are playing for their 5th state title in a decade under Coach Kaehler
Published: 10/21/2021 12:23:24 AM
 

Photo by: Steve Conner | GIRLS SOCCER PHOTO GALLERIES

No one is more surprised than Donal Kaehler that he’s living in Idaho coaching girls soccer at this point in his life. But the fact that he’s leading a Rocky Mountain girls team in the 5A state tournament this week in search of an unprecedented fourth straight title should surprise no one.

But his journey from being recruited to play quarterback at Northwestern to playing semi-pro basketball in France to coaching girls soccer is one fraught with twists and turns he never could’ve anticipated. In some ways, it’s like the game he now claims to enjoy more than any other—and not for the reasons some people like it.

“One of the things I like about soccer is how unfair it is,” Kaehler said. “I say until you’ve outshot your opponent 24-1 and lost 1-0, you haven’t been coaching long enough. It’s kind of a picture of life really.”

Kaehler started his life in rural Wisconsin, a four-sport star playing football, basketball, baseball, and track before he graduated in 1968. When his prospects of playing football at Northwestern turned south due to an injury, he decided to attend the University of Wisconsin where he majored in microbiology and medical biological sciences.

But soon after graduation, he moved to France to continue his studies and work on a research project in Grenoble. He was recruited to play on a semi-pro basketball team. However, his teammates also played soccer and invited him to join them in the offseason.

“I had been involved in sports that were dominated by coaches,” Kaehler said. “So, it was a strange sport where the coaches didn’t say or do much during matches. It felt like it was a little bit more creative. I liked the aspect where the leadership comes not from the sideline but from the field by players who understand what needs to be done to accomplish the team’s goals. And that made the sport more appealing to me.”

As much as it appealed to Kaehler as a player, it also appealed to him as a coach, though he never expected that turn of events either.

When he returned to the United States, his wife’s 10-year-old daughter, Aisha, was on a co-ed recreational soccer team that suddenly needed a coach in the middle of the season. After a parents’ meeting one night, Kaehler was appointed the coach since he was the parent most familiar with the game.

In short order, the girls on the team formed a girls competitive team and eventually become a club team—with Kaehler coaching them every step of the way.

And it was in that process that Kaehler’s eyes were opened to the disparity between boys and girls soccer at the time.

“It was kind of an awakening for me to see that boys had all these advantages in sports but the girls had nothing,” said Kaehler, whose high school didn’t offer any varsity girls sports. “That part of it appealed to me too, and I became a big proponent of girls sports.”

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Kaehler eventually coached both high school and club level soccer in Wisconsin before moving to Idaho to be closer to his grandchildren. And in 2008 when Rocky Mountain opened, Kaehler took over the reins at the fledgling program. One year later, he guided the Grizzlies to the state title game before losing to Boise, 4-2.

Since then, he’s won four state titles (2011, ’18, ’19, ’20). And while he likes winning, it’s usurped by the way he uses soccer as a great vehicle to teach life lessons, something obvious in both word and deed.

“My players will tell you that some of my rules are weird and they don’t make a lot of sense,” said Kaehler, whose fitness requirements just to try out for the varsity tax even the fittest players. “But I hope they say that they’re all treated fairly.

“If you step out of line, there are consequences. The rules are for everyone. If I didn’t apply them that way, I don’t think the girls would respect me. And as a coach, you have to be willing to lose a game to show that rules do matter and that consequences are meted out equally.”

Kaehler’s philosophy isn’t just talk. Last season, he was willing to lose not just a game but the state championship over it.

Before the state title match with Boise, three starters were late to warmups, leading Kaehler to bench them for the first part of the first half. The group included four-year starter Larissa Wegner, who eventually scored the game-winning goal in a 2-1 victory, and star keeper Kasey Wardle, who didn’t allow a goal after she went into the game.

Kaehler relishes every opportunity to teach his players how the unpredictability of the game mirrors life—and how respect for authority can keep your perspective positive.

“When something pretty egregious happens on the field, you won’t hear it from me or our bench,” Kaehler said. “We have a respect for the authority of someone on the field. That’s the way it is in life too.  You can’t just do whatever you want. You’re going to be reined in at some point. Soccer is one of those things that can help teach that.

“When a mistake is made by a player or a coach or an official, deal with it. If it’s raining or muddy, you can’t change that. The only thing that you can actually control is what you do on the field. I think those are valuable lessons to learn before these girls graduate.”

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Before this latest crop of Rocky Mountain seniors graduates, there’s still the unfinished business on the field. And the path to a fourth straight title will be daunting for the Grizzlies (18-1), which is hosting the eight-team single-elimination tournament and opening with fellow District 3 foe Centennial. Rocky Mountain defeated the Patriots 3-0 in the regular season.

A first-round win by Rocky Mountain could set up a potential rematch of last year’s state title game in the semifinals against Boise, but Kaehler isn’t willing to look that far just yet.

“Whatever happened in the regular season has happened,” Kaehler said. “When you get into the district and state tournament, erase it. It really doesn’t matter what happened before. I can tell you in all honestly that all four of the other teams from the Treasure Valley in this tournament can all beat each other on any given night.”

Rocky Mountain senior Nadia Kincaid led the district in scoring with 27 goals, while junior Kaitlyn Slocum was second with 24. Kincaid, a Boise State commit, scored both goals in the Grizzlies’ 2-1 victory over Timberline to win the district title.

“It’s really hard to single out players on this team,” Kaehler said. “They all play so well together that they really are the epitome of team play.”

While Slocum and Kincaid have been a prolific scoring tandem with at least one of them scoring in every game this season, Rocky will rely on senior—and Portland University commit—Violet Rademacher to control the pace of play as the team’s holding center midfielder. Rademacher is also a threat to score from the outside.

The Rocky Mountain defense has been equally impressive, if not more so, limiting opponents to just seven goals in 19 games this season.

“The organization between Violet and the defenders and the keepers has been outstanding this season,” Kaehler said. “This is a complete team that plays well together.”

And while Kaehler knows what his team is capable of, he recognizes the importance of keeping them focused throughout the grueling three-day tournament.

“I think the girls on the team understand the role they’re playing, but are they going to be able to keep it up?” Kaehler said. “They’re well-conditioned, so that shouldn’t be an issue. And we aren’t dealing with any nagging injuries. So, everything looks good there, but we have to go out and perform and play the way we’re capable of playing.”

 
 




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