The longest tenured head coach at Labette is transitioning into a new-yet-familiar role, while the longest tenured assistant in the department is now tasked with filling the shoes.
Labette announced that, effective July 1, Aaron Keal will transition into athletic director full-time and give up his head coaching duties for baseball. Alex Coplon, Keal’s assistant coach over the last five seasons, has been hired as the new head coach of the Cardinals baseball program.
Keal said the decision to step away from baseball and focus on being an athletic director was difficult but one he thought was a step in the right direction.
“It was very tough,” Keal said. “You see what we do. I’ve been doing this for about 20 years and a lot of the first years were by myself. Most coaches have several assistants now. It just gets tougher and tougher each year, and it wears on you.”
Keal was hired to be head coach at Labette in the summer of 1999, with his first spring season the following year. He spent 20 seasons as the Cardinals’ head coach while he was also an assistant at Labette from 1996-99.
“Obviously, I’ve spent 24 years in coaching. It’s odd, but I think we can do some really good things and keep plugging away,” Keal said.
Keal was named athletic director in 2005 and has functioned in both roles since. The longtime staple of Labette athletics said the move to full-time athletic director will allow him to focus more on the day-to-day logistics the job entails.
“The perfect example last year was the Upe Atosu case with women’s basketball,” Keal said. “That was from September until nearly the end of the season. Things have changed a great deal the last few years as far as rules. It’s ever-evolving. It’s tougher for people to do two jobs and it takes a lot of time.”
Coplon, a Claremore, Oklahoma, native, played under Keal at Labette from 2010-11 before finishing his career at Central Oklahoma. He returned to the Labette coaching staff as an assistant in 2014, with his first spring being the 2015 campaign.
“I had the privilege to be able to play for Coach Keal,” Coplon said. “He’s very important to my life and this program. He built that field pretty much. It’s been a real honor to work for him. That’s the biggest thing for me. He was a role model.”
The Labette baseball program has hovered near the bottom of the Kansas Jayhawk Conference standings over the last few seasons. Over the previous three springs, Labette has earned the eighth and final seed in the KJCCC East to earn a berth in the Region VI tournament twice before being knocked out in the first round. The Cardinals also missed out on the postseason all together once.
Coplon, 28, hopes he can inject energy into the dugout.
“The most important thing to me, 100% and not cliche or cookie-cutter, will be creating a new culture,” Coplon said. “I told the guys, ‘Welcome to Team No. 1.’ We’re starting over and want to build something that’s our own. We want those core values. A lot of things need to be changed to have a better win-loss record. I want to be able to come in and really create a new culture that has its own identity.”
Coplon said under his watch Labette baseball will be built around five overarching themes.
“The staples of our program are that we’re going to be a group and club based on accountability, trust, discipline, love and togetherness. I’m really excited to come work for a program that I care a lot about. I’ve been here for five years in Parsons because I care about this program.”
With Coplon vacating his assistant coach post to take over for Keal, Labette hired Ethan Appleby as the newest assistant under Coplon.
A native of the Kansas City metro area, Appleby spent last season as the pitching coach at Allen County. Appleby played four years of college baseball, bouncing around between Emporia State, Iowa Western and Northern Colorado.
“One of the biggest reasons I wanted him was his tenure at Iowa Western,” Coplon said. “That’s a big-time JUCO program. It’ll be really beneficial to pick his brain about how a top tier program is run.”
Coplon added that Appleby’s recruiting ties to Kansas City was another plus on his resume.
“The energy that Coach Appleby and I bring as young guys in this conference with experience playing baseball at high levels that’s benefitted us in recruiting already,” Coplon said. “Hopefully the Kansas City area opens up for us a little bit. I’m really excited for that.”
With Keal still serving as athletic director, Coplon knows he’ll have experience to lean on in his first year as head coach.
“I’m very fortunate to keep working for him,” Coplon said. “He may not be the head coach anymore, but I’ll get to see him all the time. It’ll be very beneficial to have his years of experience to fall back on and pick his brain about certain things.”
“It’ll be tough on him. It’s tough on every coach,” Keal said. “He’ll have to deal with all the issues on and off the field. Taking care of our facilities has always been a priority of mine. Those guys will have to figure things out. But I’ll be here, so I won’t let it go to the wayside. I’m ready to see how he grows. I think he’ll do a good job.”
Labette currently has 26 players — seven sophomores and 19 incoming freshmen — on its roster. Coplon hopes to get that number up to 35 and anticipates that will be accomplished in the next two weeks as he rounds up recruiting.
“I’m in contact with about 15 guys right now,” Coplon said. “I’ve had a bunch of guys on campus the last few weeks.”
With his first group, Coplon hopes to reinvigorate the program.
“We’re going to put in the work and compete at the highest level,” Coplon said. “I’m excited to start running practices and doing some creative things to keep kids engaged. You’ve got to keep the game fun for them, because at the end of the day it is a game. It’s got to be fun, fresh and creative.”
The son of a former professional baseball player, Coplon made clear his feelings about taking over for Keal.
“It’s something I’ve dreamed about ever since I left this place as a player,” Coplon said, “was being the head coach of this team. I’m excited and ready for it.”
As for Keal, he hopes taking coaching duties off his plate can allow him to spend more time with his family.
“If I didn’t think it wasn’t the right move, I wouldn’t have done it,” Keal said. “Now I’ll be able to be at more of my kids’ games and I can be around my family more. I’ve had to miss a lot over the years.”