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Feature story: Mid-Suburban League has pair of coaching aces in Keller, Stengren

By Mike Garofola, 06/11/23, 11:30PM CDT


Coaches reach 300 girls wins on same day

MSL fortunate to have two of the best in the business.

By Mike Garofola

You can take away all the career victories and the subsequent hardware earned that has filled trophy case after trophy case -- the simple fact would remain that Steve Keller and Ryan Stengren are easily two of the top managers around.

It seemed only appropriate that both claimed their 300th-career girls victory on the same night -- May 3.

The pair has turned in master classes night-after-night in the manager’s box.

Stengren crunches the numbers constantly and views endless hours of film before piecing together a tactical plan which is second to none.

"I've played for some great coaches, but (Stengren) has undoubtedly been the best I've worked with," said Brooke Brown, Barrington’s two-time IHSSCA all-stater and the 2023 Mid-Suburban League West Division Player of the Year after her club won its 11th-consecutive league Soccer Cup title.

"His approach in terms of preparation is unmatched. He sets high expectations for each and every one of his players. That has not only made all of us better players but a better team as well," continued Brown, who will play Ivy League soccer at Cornell in the fall.

"Being a part of a milestone like 300-career wins is something very special for me," said Ellie Sanchez, the Fillies first class outside back, who like Brown was a Chicagoland Soccer all-stater last season (the 2023 team will be announced in July). “(Stengren) has done so much great work for our program and being able to celebrate him and his dedication to all us is fantastic."

Sanchez will play next fall at North Dakota State.

Keller is meticulous in his approach to every opponent and possesses the innate ability to sort through the strengths and weaknesses of his roster to slowly build a side that always seems to be at its most dangerous during the latter stages of the campaign.

"With his booming voice, and tough exterior, I know I was a little intimidated when I first began to play for him as a freshman. But when you get to know Keller, you find out he has a real funny-side to him and is a real players’ coach. He’ll do whatever it takes to prepare us for what comes our way," said senior Kaitlyn Roti, who wore the captain’s armband proudly along with teammates Bella Scesniak and Gemma Gillespie.

"I agree with Kaitlyn, he kind of scared me at first with how hard he makes us work and what he expects from all of us,” added Scesniak. “But he has a great personality, and he treats us with respect. He really cares for all of us, and I am really proud to have been a part of him winning his 300th in his career."

Stengren took over for Scott Steib in the spring of 2008. 

Keller started coaching Fremd’s girls program in 1999 after Don Balk stepped down. Keller replaced Hall of Fame manager Gerardo Pagnani in the fall of 1998, the season after the boys team won the state championship.

"(Pagnani) has been like a second father to me," says Keller. “He gave me the chance to get my foot in the door with teaching and coaching. He has mentored me along the way with advice, support and guidance to help me create my own identity as a teacher-coach and has been instrumental is any success that I have achieved.

"(Gerardo) does things the right way. He is ethical, caring and competitive. I've absorbed so much from him. He is a real, true friend for me."

Keller has led the girls’ program to 12 regional titles, 4 sectional crowns, and three state trophies which include runnerup honors in 2007 and 2009.

Keller had a storied playing career. He was a two-time all-stater at Waubonsie Valley before moving on to play at Indiana. In 1994 his Hoosiers fell to Virginia in the NCAA championship game.

Keller was drafted by the Dallas Burn in the inaugural Major League Soccer draft in 1996. He played professionally indoors for the Milwaukee Wave and the Chicago Stingers in 1998.

Coaching the high school game is where he found his home.

"Those two seasons we finished second are right up there at the top, but for me, I enjoy every season and team. They are all unique in their own way,” said Keller, who teaches drivers education, sophomore wellness and advanced soccer weights at Fremd.

He has a list as long as this story of shining stars who have worn the Vikings green, including the quintet of: Dominique (Dom) Locascio; Liz Holby; Laura Mayer; Elise Kotsakis; and Kelsie Stone.

Keller has also won 324 matches on the boys side. His accomplishments include bringing home six state trophies, including one runnerup finish (2021).

"I've known Steve for 30 years. He and I played together briefly in the early years of the Sports Club, that eventually became the Chicago Magic," said Hinsdale Central manager Mike Wiggins, himself a brilliant manager with countless awards and honors to his name, including his 400th career win last fall.

"We've worked camps together, played together and have been coaching against each other for quite some time. I’ve seen the way Steve makes a difference as an educator every day -- making his players better, while making the game of soccer better as well."

Wiggins recalls the 2014 state championship season at Hinsdale Central when his Red Devils played the Vikings twice: losing earlier in the season 1-0, and later gaining revenge in a state semifinal contest.

"I knew playing a Steve Keller-led team would not be easy, especially with a spot in the state final at stake," recounted Wiggins.

"We were chasing the game (1-0) but came back to equalize before the break and got the game-winner in the second half to record one of the biggest victories in program history against one of the best programs in the state.

"It's just another example of his ability to consistently put his teams in position to succeed and compete at a high level."

"Steve was one of the first to welcome me into the group of Mid-Suburban League coaches," began Hersey manager Mike Rusniak. “The success he has achieved year after year is a reflection of the focus he places in player growth.

"His teams are always disciplined and get stronger as the season progresses. I've learned so much from just watching how he manages and how his players perform."

Stengren has made Barrington the team to beat in the Mid-Suburban League.

"It's always players first before anything else with Stengren," Brown said during an interview for the story that named her the Daily Herald Player of the Year in Cook County.

"(Stengren) puts so much into this team and our program," said sophomore and 2022 all-stater Piper Lucier. “He treats every player the same, whether a starter or not. For me, I feel so fortunate to be able to play for someone like him and to be a part of his 300th-career victory.”

Stengren's philosophy and principles are rock solid. His Fillies play top-notch soccer in all phases of the game.

History will validate that claim with a fquick glance of his 309-51-24 mark that includes eight state trophies, including back-to-back state titles (2017, 2018) and a pair of second place finishes.

"That first state title in 2017 is one that I'll always remember, just a great bunch of players who would define that particular season," said Stengren. “Through the years I have valued each new group of players who have come through our program.

"It's impossible to name the five-six best players of all time when you think about the likes of Molly Pfeiffer, Jenna Szczesny, Jackie Batliner, Sophia Spinell, Hannah Luedtke, Sam (Samantha) Schmitz, the list goes on; (I've) been very fortunate."

Stengren starred at Hersey and then Akron, before playing professional indoor soccer for the Chicago Power. He has coached for 24 seasons at Barrington, 15 on the girls side.

He played on a wildly successful Arlington Aces club team that featured Brian McBride, perhaps the finest player ever in the annals of United State soccer.

Stengren lists McBride, Mid-Suburban League coaching legend Tony Kees, Naperville North girls coach Steve Goletz, former teammate Brendon Eitz, former Fillies manager Jeff Muhr and current Broncos boys manager Scott Steib as those who he calls when he needs different perspectives.

"Ryan has done an incredible job of taking his program to the highest level imaginable," said Steib, who just finished his 24th year in charge of the boys' program at Barrington and is two victories shy of no. 400.

“His attention to detail related to tactics and positional responsibilities for every player is second to none.

"The culture of the program under Ryan is one where any player wanting to play must be highly dedicated, fully fit and very hard-working. You always find his teams incredibly athletic and play a style that wears opponents down. They are so hard to compete against.

"(He) works so hard himself preparing and scouting opponents. He knows that just might give his club the slightest of advantages."