Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy's Frank Pace, Kathy Desmond coached Tologs soccer to unprecedented heights
For 14 seasons together, FSHA co-coaches built program into an area, Southern California powerhouse.
Former Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy soccer coaches Frank Pace and Kathy Desmond, at the La Canada Flintridge school on Thursday, January 23, 2014. Both will be inducted into the school's athletic hall of fame soon. (Raul Roa / Staff Photographer / February 6, 2014)
Kathy Desmond was the quiet one in a hoodie, shorts and sneakers.
Together, they were architects of the most successful girls’ soccer program in area chronicle.
Desmond and Pace didn’t begin their time at Flintridge Sacred Heart together, nor did they end it that way. But on Saturday, once again together, they will be enshrined as the first coaches in the school’s athletic hall of fame.
“They’re of utmost deserving,” says Stephanie Contreras, the FSHA athletic director. “They certainly built this program. It takes a lot of time and dedication.
“As soon as I brought it to the committee, they were like, ‘What a great idea.’”
Together, they orchestrated the first and only CIF Southern Section Division I girls’ soccer championship run in area lore, just a season after an equally historic CIF Southern California Division III Regional Championship.
“We just worked really well together,” Desmond says. “It was sort of the perfect fit. I don’t know what to say, the yin and yang.
“It just worked perfectly. We both respected each other’s opinions.”
More than 50 players, four of them high school All-Americans, emerged from under the Desmond-Pace umbrella to play at the collegiate level. A pair of Mission League titles, a 36-game unbeaten streak and ascension to the top of the national rankings likewise marked the pinnacle of success that was their reign.
Alas, for this tale of Tologs triumph, one must climb up a hill to get a view not of the top, but of the bottom from whence Flintridge Sacred Heart soccer climbed.
Kathy Desmond, having played soccer throughout her life including four seasons at Sonoma State before plying her trade on the semi-professional level, was working in the front office at Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy when an opening came about.
Hardly the most desirable of positions, Desmond says she was “in the right place at the right time” to take over a program that had been in existence for all of one season.
The right place would prove to be Flintridge Sacred Heart and the right time was 18 seasons, but it would take some time and some lumps before those words proved prophetic.
“My first year was the first year in the Mission League,” says Desmond, whose first-year squad went 5-11-1 and 1-7-2 in league. “It was like being hit by a train.”
The Mission League can still hit like a train, but the Tologs would eventually become conductors.
Those days were still far away, though, as Flintridge Sacred Heart went 34-39-6 over Desmond’s first four seasons, with a 15-7 campaign and a third-place mark in the Mission League in the 1996-97 season standing as the highlight.
It was in 1998 that Erin Pace joined the program and her father Frank followed along with her, a former standout goalie at Jacksonville University who asked Desmond if he could lend a helping hand.
“I vividly remember that day and I was like, ‘OK, it’s another pain-in-the-butt parent,’” Desmond says.
While the elder Pace would prove to be the opposite of a pain in the butt — at least to Desmond — his motives, admittedly, were that of the parental persuasion.
“When my daughter enrolled there, I saw that as an excuse to spend two hours a day with my daughter,” Pace says. “It was purely a selfish parenting thing to do.”
To know Frank Pace, is to know it didn’t take him long to let his voice be heard.
“I said, ‘Can I sit here? I won’t say a word,’” Pace says of how he approached Desmond about coaching. “It took me 30 seconds to get off the bench and yell instructions. And I yelled them for 15 years.”
While 15 years passed before the Tologs’ sideline quieted a bit, by all accounts, it was an instantaneous match with Desmond and Pace.
“Quite honestly, it was perfect almost from the beginning,” Pace says. “We agreed on almost everything. She was as competitive as I am. It gradually grew even stronger. I don’t think we ever disagreed on a critical decision.”
It became a coaching relationship and a dynamic synonymous with Flintridge Sacred Heart soccer.
“I thought the dynamic was perfect,” says Lauren Bustos, a 2006 Flintridge Sacred Heart graduate who was an All-Area Girls’ Soccer Player of the Year before playing at Fordham. “They offset each other nicely.”
Aside from a 9-9-1 2001-02 campaign, Desmond and Pace produced winning seasons all 14 years they were together.
Pace would prove to be the master planner, his eye for detail and statistics only matched by his gift of gab.
“Frank is really, really, really into the game,” says 2012 graduate Breeana Koemans, a former high school All-American and All-Area Player of the Year who now plays at Northeastern. “He would have stuff on everybody: Who their best player was; what college she was going to; what foot she liked to use. It was like a college locker room.”
A longtime television producer with Emmy-winning credentials, Pace’s resume featured producing the likes of “Murphy Brown,” “Head of the Class,” and “George Lopez,” among others. But sports had always been a passion, having played soccer, been the agent of Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Rod Carew and worked in the fledgling World Football League.
He had also been involved in public relations, lending another branch to sports and, in addition to being a published writer, a knack with the media.
“He likes to do the talking; that’s fine with me,” Desmond jokes.
But more than that, Pace loved to tell a good story.
“I understand the needs of the media and I understood the media could tell our story,” Pace says.
And what was unfolding was a story of a little school of roughly 400 students steadily becoming the little school that could.
At the school, Desmond added an invaluable role to that of coach, as her on-campus presence proved vital.
“You have an on-campus presence that I didn’t have,” Pace says. “You had a presence for 15 years that the girls could go and vent about me, about their parents, their boyfriends and she’d just listen.”
The Tologs quickly became players in the Mission League, bolstered by the likes of Bustos, Hannah Hand, Angie Torres and Linzee Luper. While the likes of Jessica Reyes and Jessica Hanson, among others, were stars before, Flintridge Sacred Heart was starting to develop a program that had talent all over the field able to compete with the likes of Harvard-Westlake and Chaminade for league hierarchy.
“We brought a different dynamic,” Bustos says. “And the years after that they were getting more and more [high-level] club players.
“By the time we were seniors, the mentality had definitely changed.”
Bustos’ senior season saw the Tologs finish second in league for a second consecutive year, but it was in the 2008-09 season that Flintridge Sacred Heart broke through and won its first Mission League title. It was the beginning of an unprecedented run of success.
Pace credits seniors such as Sinead Fleming, Pip Harragin, Samantha Norton and Izzy Johnson for showing the way that year, but it was an infusion of all-star freshman talent along with sophomore dynamo Natalie Zeenni that would ultimately take the Tologs to unprecedented heights.
Flintridge Sacred Heart fell short of reaching the CIF Southern Section Division II championship when it was bested by Beckman in a semifinal shootout, but went on to win the Division III SoCal title in 2010. Still, the quest for a Southern Section title was truly what the Tologs wanted.
With a multitude of standouts such as Zeenni, Koemans, Katie Johnson, Tera Trujillo, Jillian Jacobs, Katelyn Almeida, Alexa Montgomery, Kayla Mills, Sarah Teegarden and on and on, there was no shortage of talent or swagger. Thus, Desmond and Pace decided to go against the grain as it related to their coaching style in the 2010-11 season.
“I told Frank at the beginning of the season, this isn’t gonna be a team we’re gonna be able to coach like we want to coach,” Desmond says. “This is not a team we can put through boot camp.
“We let it go and I think that was the best coaching decision we ever made.”
Says Pace: “We had the talent, there was no doubt we had the talent. We thought that talent would manifest itself if we let them be themselves.”
Still, there were times when the coaching duo had to rein in its players, whose ability was seemingly matched by their confidence.
“We hated it, but we needed it,” Koemans says. “It kept us from saying we were the best, even though we knew we were.”
Having won their second Mission League title, the Tologs set forth to run an Orange County gauntlet that was the CIF Southern Section Division I playoffs. After an opening-round drubbing of Foothill, the Tologs took to the road and won a nailbiter in penalty kicks over Aliso Niguel, then they beat Tesoro by a comfortable 3-1 margin. Then came a semifinal road trip to Esperanza. Then came overtime, a perfect pass from Koemans and a historic goal from Alyssa Conti in the 83rd minute.
With the CIF final deep in the OC at Mission Viejo High, it was Krista Meaglia who made history, scoring the only goal in a 1-0 defeat of San Clemente, running across the field with her arms outstretched, forever changing the area girls’ soccer landscape.
“I think that year we had a group of kids who believed they could win,” Desmond says. “There’s a real difference between wanting and believing.”
It is now two seasons since Desmond coached her last game, but she’s still at Flintridge Sacred Heart if the girls need her as the school’s academic dean.
Pace shared coaching duties with Cesar Hidalgo in his last official season of 2012-13. But as Hidalgo has clearly taken the reins, Pace is still fast at work securing next year’s schedule, lending a hand to make sure all the team’s results make it to the papers and, above all else, looking out for the girls he coached.
“I always believe I coached them for life,” Pace says. “I didn’t coach a kid for four years and forget about them. It’s the responsibility of an adult to help a youngster find their talent and that goes beyond high school and college.”
And many still come back to a muddy field atop a hill that begot a story of a little school that could.
“It speaks volumes when you have an alumni game and you get 35-40 alums and parents,” Contreras says.
Pace can’t rightly decide on one great memory. There was the first time the Tologs beat Chaminade, coming in overtime after Whitney Davis skied above the rest to tie the match with 12 seconds left and Hand later won it. Another emotional Chaminade win saw Pace 3,000 miles removed in New York after his mother died, but he received a voice mail with the screams of “We won!” “I really needed that call at that time,” he says. There was the dramatic quarterfinal playoff comeback against Saugus, as the Tologs, buoyed by an impassioned halftime speech from Zeenni, rallied from a two-goal deficit to win, 3-2. And, of course, the Division I title. He likes his stories after all, it would be difficult to choose just one.
For Desmond, though, it is that championship year that ultimately defines a story nearly two decades in the making.
“I think that starting at the bottom and scratching and clawing all the way to the top in 2011, that’s the ultimate,” Desmond says. “Everything possible was stacked against us. … But Frank and I both have that attitude that if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.”
And, together they did.