Former App State soccer coach finds success with Appalachian FC


Courtesy of Jason O'Keefe

Jason O’Keefe, middle, poses with the conference championship trophy alongside former App State players Camden Holbrook, left, and Nick Buchholz, right, July 16, 2022.

Alex Urquiza, Reporter

The soccer community in Boone took a huge hit May 26, 2020, after the university’s men’s soccer program was cut due to financial issues from COVID-19. It was a huge defeat for head coach Jason O’Keefe at the time, with all the work he’d done stripped away from him. Fast-forward two years and O’Keefe started a new era of soccer in the High Country with Appalachian Football Club, winning a trophy in his second season as co-owner.

“It feels horrible when you put your blood, sweat and tears into something and when you’re about to see the benefit of your hard work it’s all taken away,” O’Keefe said.

O’Keefe spent four and a half seasons as the head coach of the university’s men’s soccer program. With the program not reaching its goals beforehand, O’Keefe was hired to bring the program back to winning ways. Before his arrival in 2016, the Mountaineers hadn’t had a winning season since 2012. 

In the men’s soccer program final season in 2019, they completed their second straight winning season, had the most wins in a single season since 2002, an Academic Progress Rate of 1,000, the highest GPA out of all men’s programs, and beat UNC-Chapel Hill for the first time since 1980. 

“Anytime you can go to a power 5 ACC team and get a win is a lifetime memory,” O’Keefe said. “It was one of those things that year where we really felt like we were about to turn the corner for sustained excellence.”

After the program was cut, O’Keefe knew he had to bring men’s soccer back to Boone. His two main reasons behind this were the alumni and community. The alumni no longer had a team they could look back on to support. As for the community, in O’Keefe’s words, Boone is a “sneaky, sneaky soccer community,” filled with passionate fans.

When he first arrived as the head coach for the men’s soccer program, O’Keefe was approached by one of his partners, Michael Hitchcock, to start a National Premier Soccer League team in Boone, but it never came to fruition. When the men’s soccer program was cut, O’Keefe reached out to Hitchcock as he knew he was someone who he could lean on and confide in. Then one day in the middle of August, Hitchcock called O’Keefe and told him the plan to launch Appalachian FC with the two being figureheads in the ownership group.

“He called me in the middle of August and said ‘this is what we are going to do, where you fit in, time is right time, the community needs this,’” O’Keefe said. 

Appalachian FC was an instant success on the pitch and for the community. They partnered with huge local businesses such as App Ortho and Mast General Store, while also having a supporters group, “The Squatch Guard,” who tailgated and marched to every match from Booneshine Brewery. 

“We far exceeded all our expectations the first month, first year, and even now it is still a scratch your head moment and smile,” O’Keefe said. 

Despite the program being cut out of his control two years ago, O’Keefe states there’s never been any spite toward the university. Although he believes that there were better ways to go around the issue, O’Keefe knew it wasn’t an easy decision for the university to cut the program.
“We took it upon ourselves to fill the void with soccer to provide for the young kids to have something to aspire to,” O’Keefe said. “Lifting that trophy was a ‘we finally did it’ moment, not a negative thought went through my head.”

In Appalachian FC’s first season they exceeded their goals, getting third in the Southeast Conference and being eliminated from the conference semifinals. In their second season, they surprised everyone again, winning their conference title and advancing to the NPSL East Division Final, where they were eliminated by FC Motown, who went on to win the national title. With the Sasquatches reaching the national quarter final, they will now participate in next year’s U.S. Open Cup, the U.S.’s longest running soccer tournament that involves professional and semi-pro teams. 

“We understood the responsibility that we had as a team and club to fill that gap and give back to the community something that they lost that was so important to them,” Appalachian FC head coach Dale Parker said. “When we won the conference tournament, it felt like a big weight lifted off everyone’s shoulders. It felt great to give back to the community.”

Parker and O’Keefe knew each other before Appalachian FC from a connection to a former coach whom they had a good relationship with. O’Keefe and the App FC staff chose Parker to become the head coach because of his history as a former Lees-McRae player and similar goals both on the field and off the field. They were both very aligned in their way of thinking, making the decision to assign Parker the head coach role easier. 

Two years later, that decision proved to be the right choice with Parker being announced NPSL manager of the year in Appalachian FC’s second season. 

“It was nice when I saw his name pop up on my phone. I thought it was an exciting phone call to receive,” Parker said. “He was really honest about what he expected, we were very aligned in our thinking and it made the decision for them to hire me very easy.”

One of the reasons for Appalachian FC’s instant success was the addition of former university men’s soccer players. There were eight former players in the first season and four in the second season. Forward Camden Holbrook and goalkeeper Nick Buchholz were the only two former players present on the night the Sasquatches lifted the Southeast Conference trophy, being able to share their special moment at the Ted Mackorell Soccer Complex with O’Keefe. 

“We got a last run out at Ted Mack and to lift the trophy at Ted Mack to win the Southeast Championship was a really emotional time,” O’Keefe said. “To have a couple guys there to see it out was ultimately what we were shooting for and what we feel like we were close to doing with App State, it really put some closure to things.”