Sep. 7—JACKSONVILLE — When Shannon and Bryan O'Keefe chose to pack up and leave their top-ranked bowling program at McKendree University to help launch a program at Jacksonville State, the two knew that there would be plenty of risk.
After a short time in Jacksonville State and without knocking down one pin as a program, the duo have already propelled the Gamecocks into the national championship conversation.
"One of the things that we felt like we've loved about Jax State was what we loved about our past institution, the family-type feel. We get the same feel here," Bryan O'Keefe said. "It's very much a family type oriented feel, even though it's bigger. Bigger athletics, bigger institution. We only had 1,200 undergrads at our last school, so it's definitely different."
When it comes to a reputation in the bowling community, the O'Keefes are a duo that rank among the elite.
Before her arrival at JSU, head coach Shannon O'Keefe led McKendree to four national championships (two NCAA championships and two USBC intercollegiate team championships) and finished as a seven-time National Ten Pin Coaches Association (NTCA) coach of the year.
She is also an 18-time member of Team USA, laying claim to eight world championships and 15 titles on the Professional Women's Bowling Association. She's also a three-time PWBA player of the year.
"For them to already be having an overall different but very exciting experience was a huge draw for us, to be able to give them that overall experience," Shannon O'Keefe said. "For the last five years at our previous institution, those girls were consistently ranked the number one team in the entire country consistently. Now, to be able to give them the same experience that their peers and other institutions are giving is pretty awesome."
In addition to the longtime coach coming to Jacksonville State, her spouse Bryan O'Keefe's experiences put the Gamecocks' bowling staff over the top.
Bryan O'Keefe, who will serve as coordinator of athletic operations for bowling at JSU, served as director of bowling at McKendree for the men and women's programs, while also serving as the head coach for Team USA bowling.
While his title suggests a behind-the-scenes role with the Gamecocks, he will also coach alongside his spouse.
Together, the two have built a strong coaching philosophy that builds a second-to-none bond between the coaches and players on the roster.
"Our kids that come and compete for us, it is our family. It is our job to raise them for the next four years," Shannon O'Keefe said. "What we do with our kids goes far beyond teaching them to be better players, we're very confident in our ability to do that. For us, it's a much deeper dive into how we can make them better people? How can we make them truly confident in who they are and that they're going to be successful when they leave us? Beyond that, we want to have lifelong relationships with them. When we say our kids, we mean it in a family form like they are our kids."
In addition to a pair of talented freshmen and 2021 NTCA Bowler of the Year and Nebraska transfer Crystal Elliott, six bowlers from McKendree followed the O'Keefes to Jacksonville State. Four of the six McKendree transfers have earned All-America honors. Every veteran on JSU's roster has won an NCAA championship.
With a roster that's loaded with upperclassmen, many players know that they're coming to Jacksonville with one more shot to bring home a national championship.
"We're going to go from not ever having a team to being a powerhouse and being like one of the main players in the national championship," Bryan O'Keefe said. "I say every year, but hopefully every year the recruits still want to come. But, most certainly this year, we have four fifth years this year, so we are most certainly an upperclassmen-laden squad."
With JSU's roster size of nine bowlers, it brings a lot less stress and helps the staff give one-on-one attention to each bowler. In years past, the two have had rosters as large as 29.
"I think overall, the one-on-one attention that we can give each player, like we have nine girls on the team this year where at our previous school, we've had between 15 and 20 every single year or a few times, we had mid-20s" Bryan O'Keefe said. "We were like a softball team, and only five people play at a time."
Added Shannon O'Keefe: "Division II model for a lot of schools is they use athletics and roster sizes to help with enrollment, so we had a very inflated roster size there. Here, we don't have that, we don't have an expected number. We kind of get to build it and be a little more selective."
While the roster is loaded with players who will depart from the program soon, the duo said that Jacksonville State has already made a case as an attractive destination for recruits.
The two said that when they went to Junior Gold Championships, a popular tournament which hosted 3,000 bowlers, many players jumped on the opportunity to talk to the O'Keefes about playing at JSU.
"We're the new shiny penny. All these recruits, pretty much any kid that we wanted to talk to, they're like, 'yes, absolutely. We most certainly want to come visit,'" Shannon O'Keefe said. "If that equals commits, we don't know until that time comes, but just the fact that we were the talk of Junior Gold this year amongst other coaches and recruits, that was a good thing."
The two shared that their schedule is already loaded with invite-only tournaments featuring a large share of Conference USA opponents. The two said that after the support they've already received, it's almost like they owe the community a national championship.
"I can't wait till our girls win their first regular-season tournament and we get to bring that home and present it to Greg (Seitz) and to share in that excitement with everybody," Shannon O'Keefe said. "When the coaches' polls come out and we see where we're ranked in the country, we get to experience the first of everything at Jacksonville State with them.
"We didn't have that at our previous school because it had already been in existence for at least a decade before we even got there. I just think the overall excitement is something that I haven't felt before because it really is the first of everything."
Sports Writer Thomas Ashworth: 256-236-1551. On Twitter: @ThomasAshworth0.