Columbia High Athletic Director Joe Iorio didn’t have to look far for his new baseball coach.
Iorio and the school district replaced recently retired coach Keith Jany with longtime varsity assistant and middle school coach Neal O’Donnell.
“With him being in the district and having been the varsity assistant coach all this time with Keith Jany, it made perfect sense for us to go in that direction,” Iorio said of the 34-year-old O’Donnell. “He’s done a good job directing our middle school program and I honestly think if you’ve got somebody familiar with your program for almost 10 years, who’s willing to step in and assume the reins, give him the first opportunity. The kids know him and respect him.”
O’Donnell played catcher and some outfield for Belleville West. He has logged many years as an assistant coach and is ready to see what it’s like directing a varsity program.
“I am definitely ready to go,” O’Donnell said. “I feel like it’s an honor and privilege to work with the athletes we have here. I look at our conference and there’s great players and the coaches all have a passion for the game. You have to compete day-in and day-out in order to be successful. I’m really looking forward to it.”
With him being in the district and having been the varsity assistant coach all this time with Keith Jany, it made perfect sense for us to go in that direction.
Columbia Athletic Director Joe Iorio
O’Donnell was an assistant coach when Columbia won its second state baseball championship in 2007. The Eagles’ other state title came in 1987 and the town has proud baseball tradition.
“When you trace Columbia baseball all the way back to Jim Stuart and Vernon Smith, a lot of good names have built this up,” Iorio said.
A Millstadt native, O’Donnell began his teaching and coaching career at Houston High in Germantown, Tenn. He was there for two years and was part of the school coaching staff for a 2005 Tennessee state title.
“There were really, really good coaches and a good program there,” O’Donnell said. “On that team that won the state championship, I think 12 of those kids went Division I. The coaches at Houston High School started me off with a true passion for coaching.
“When I got here to Columbia, seeing the way (former) coach (Dustin) Nail and coach Jany approached the game helped, too.”
O’Donnell was a varsity assistant for seven seasons under Jany and also was junior varsity coach for two years. Jany retired last fall after guiding the Eagles to a 149-74 record in seven seasons.
O’Donnell also had the dual role of coaching the eighth-grade team at Columbia Middle School for seven years.
I don’t really envision any major overhauls of our program. I don’t think we have to tear anything down and start it new.
New Columbia baseball coach Neal O’Donnell
He’s familiar with the local baseball talent and knows the names and faces. That should help create a smooth transition for a new head coach.
“I don’t really envision any major overhauls of our program,” O’Donnell said. “I don’t think we have to tear anything down and start it new. We’re going to operate in mostly the same manner than we did before with a few minor changes.
“One of the things for us is we’re looking to compete for a conference championship. We haven’t won a regional in the past few years, we’ve run into some tough luck and things and other teams got hot. That’s just the way baseball goes.”
Columbia’s last regional title came in 2007, the same year the Eagles won the state title.
“Whether we’re in 2A or 3A, around here I think a lot of regionals are just as tough as any sectional you’re going to see,” O’Donnell said. “Hopefully we’re peaking at the right time to compete for a regional.”
The Eagles were 21-13 last season and return one of the region’s top outfielders in senior Cameron Touchette, who signed with John A. Logan junior college. Touchette’s .556 batting average was second in the St. Louis area last spring and he also had 13 doubles, two home runs and 24 RBIs along with 40 runs scored.
O’Donnell said senior left-hander Andrew Hoguet has committed to McKendree University.