New South Park girls soccer coach excited for opportunity at alma mater

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Monday, May 18, 2020 | 9:29 PM


For T.J. O’Brien, there’s no place like home.

No, he didn’t have to click red glass slippers like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. He simply had to say yes when offered the girls soccer head coaching position at South Park.

O’Brien, a 2006 South Park graduate and former Eagles boys soccer standout, was hired last Thursday and takes over for Shelly Thropp, who stepped down in December after two decades at the helm.

“When this opportunity came about, I felt it was time to kind of step into my own and take over my own program,” said O’Brien, who served as a girls varsity assistant at Moon the past two seasons.

O’Brien said he understands the magnitude of the South Park girls soccer program and what it accomplished under Thropp’s tutelage from 2000-19.

The Eagles have won five WPIAL titles since 2000. The 2018 Class AA championship was the program’s first since it won three straight from 2006-08.

Last year, South Park made it to the WPIAL Class AA semifinals and won the third-place game for a trip to states. The Eagles suffered a double-overtime loss to District 5 champion Bedford in the first round.

“My goal, and the goal of my coaching staff, is to take a program that has been historically great and keep it at a high level,” O’Brien said. “There are a lot of expectations with this group coming in, and we want to get them back to the top where we think they belong.”

South Park athletic director Tom Kayda said he looks forward to the future of the Eagles girls soccer program with O’Brien leading the way.

“Being an alum of South Park, he knows the program and the expectations,” Kayda said. “With what Shelly had done, we wanted to make sure whoever we brought on knew what they were taking on. T.J. knows how the program is ingrained in the community.”

Joining O’Brien on the staff is former South Park, Beadling and Duquesne standout Kelly (Reed) Shoplik. She most recently served three seasons as the girls head coach at Baldwin (2016-18).

Also on board is Josh Stock, a collegiate player at King’s College in northeastern Pennsylvania in the late 1990s who is known in local soccer circles for his coaching involvement in the Century United club program.

O’Brien said he looks forward to a time within the next couple of months when he can work with all of his players in person. The PIAA a couple of weeks ago established July 1 as a tentative date for teams to begin offseason workouts.

For now, O’Brien said, meetings and strategies for the upcoming season with players, parents and boosters are being conducted through virtual means on platforms such as Zoom and Skype.

“I know the girls are out training on their own, and we hope to utilize the resources at our disposal to develop some sort of an offseason program that still maintains the social distancing guidelines from the state,” he said.

“We have to be sensitive with that. We have to play it by ear, and once things open up, we can adjust. One thing I do know is that when this group gets the green light, they’re going to take off.”

O’Brien said that while he is happy to be back with his alma mater, it was tough to leave the Moon program and all the relationships he developed.

“I can’t say enough about all the support for the program,” he said. “(Moon) is such a positive community for soccer. But there is something to be said for when your alma mater calls and a chance like this becomes available.”

O’Brien made an impact during his time as a player on the South Park boys team. He captained the 2005 Eagles, with 23 goals scored, to an undefeated season (23-0-3) and WPIAL and PIAA Class AA titles.

Finishing with 48 career goals, O’Brien earned All-WPIAL honors as a junior and All-WPIAL and all-state recognition as a senior and was selected to the 2005 Tribune-Review Elite 11 team.

Success in soccer followed O’Brien to college at Division II Wheeling Jesuit (now Wheeling University).

The two-year captain earned All-West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference honors twice as a midfielder and capped his collegiate career by helping the 2009 Cardinals to a 17-3 record, a conference championship and a spot in the NCAA Division II Atlantic Regional.

He was a part of a turnaround at Wheeling Jesuit from a winless season just two years earlier.

With a strong backround in club soccer in programs such as Century United, Beadling and STM (Steel Town Magic), O’Brien’s coaching career took off at the club level shortly after college.

“It was fun to work with youth elite soccer camps, helping on technical and player development,” O’Brien said. “We did some travel affiliations with that.”

In recent years, he has immersed himself in club coaching responsibilities at Beadling, coaching 2001 showcase and 2002 elite teams.

O’Brien stepped into the world of high school coaching in the fall of 2017 as a volunteer with longtime South Park head coach Jon Cantwell.

“Jon was nice enough to have me on and get me involved with the high school scene,” O’Brien said. “That was a great experience.”

He then made the jump to Moon in 2018 as the Tigers were moving up to Quad-A after winning back-to-back WPIAL and PIAA Class 3A titles.

They qualified for the WPIAL playoffs that season and were edged by North Allegheny, 2-1, in the first round.

This past fall, Moon was Section 2-4A co-champions with Peters Township and earned the No. 3 seed for the playoffs. The Tigers were upended by No. 6 Seneca Valley, 1-0, in the quarterfinals.

“When we got there, we knew what we were walking into as a staff,” O’Brien said. “They had lost just one game in two years. We were entering one of the toughest sections in Quad-A. We knew the wall we had to climb. We understood the intensity of the games and that there were no off days or nights. But the girls, no matter the situation, always worked really hard and never backed down from a challenge.”

Michael Love is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Michael by email at mlove@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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