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Sean Topping was all set to go to Ohio to help out another former teammate, Brian Kelley ’96, who is the head men’s and women’s coach at Defiance College, when Tipping left Muhlenberg after 16 seasons for the NSCAA. Topping was hired as interim head coach in the summer of 2002 and had the “interim” tag removed after guiding the Mules to a 13-8 record in his first season.

Muhlenberg and Stevens Tech were to have played in 2002, but Stevens had to change its schedule due to a conflict. The teams traveled to Scotland and England together for 10 days prior to the start of the 2003 season, a trip that, while enhancing the friendship of the two head coaches, led to the development of a rivalry between the two squads.

That set the stage for the first meeting between the former roommates on the second day of the Mule Invitational. Played on Varsity Field before a large Saturday night crowd filled with alumni, the Mules scored a goal midway through the second half for a 1-0 win.

“It was kind of weird to look over and see three Muhlenberg guys on the away bench,” admitted Topping, referring to O’Donohue, Assistant Coach Rhett Goldsmith ’98 and his brother, helping out as a volunteer assistant. “That week in practice was great getting the guys up for the game. They knew what it was all about. It was more than just us beating Stevens. It was showing our alum on the other side what we were made of.”

“They weren’t going to let us win at Muhlenberg, as I wouldn’t have when I was a player,” joked O’Donohue. “I was pretty proud of that. But I got pretty emotional about the game. I had a lot of memories and a lot of great times on that field.”

As the season wore on, the win grew more and more in stature. The Ducks tied their next game, then won 17 in a row to climb as high as No. 6 in the national rankings. They entered the NCAA Tournament with just the one loss on their record.

The Mules also had an impressive year, going through the CC season undefeated, then winning the league tournament to capture their first CC championship since Topping and O’Donohue’s senior year of 1997.

The two coaches remained in close contact throughout the season, talking four or five times a week and exchanging coaching ideas and scouting reports. On the Monday morning following an emotional win against Johns Hopkins in the CC championship game, Topping walked into his office to check his team’s NCAA Tournament assignment on the Web. Before he got his computer on, the phone rang. It was O’Donohue, and the conversation went something like this:

O’Donohue: “Did you see the draw?”
Topping: “No.”
O’Donohue: “You won’t be happy.”
Topping: “Why, did we get Messiah?” (Messiah was the defending national champion.)
O’Donohue: “No, you have Gordon.”
Topping: “Gordon, what’s wrong with that?”
O’Donohue: “Then you have us.”

Muhlenberg got past Gordon in a shootout to set up the rematch neither coach really wanted. With a chance to avenge their only loss, the Ducks had extra motivation, and came back from an early 1-0 deficit to earn their first NCAA Tournament win.

Stevens Tech was eliminated the next day by Drew, and O’Donohue turned his attention to the offseason, which meant more time with his rival-for-a-day. Topping and O’Donohue traveled together to Columbus, Ohio, for the NCAA Division I Championships in mid-December and went to Florida to recruit later in the month. They were scheduled to fly to England in the spring to take a coaching course with Tipping.

The two coaches frequently go recruiting together, which helps ease the loneliness of traveling. Fortunately, they rarely find themselves competing for the same players, and they even help each other out. For instance, Topping might refer a recruit who is heavily into engineering to Stevens Tech. “I’d rather him go there than to Johns Hopkins or another school in our conference,” he reasoned.

Because of the awkwardness of this year’s two meetings, Topping and O’Donohue have agreed not to play each other in the future – at least not in the regular season. With the success both have enjoyed so early in their careers (O’Donohue is 42-7-4 and the Metro Region coach of the year; Topping is 30-13-1), future postseason meetings are a distinct possibility.

Muhlenberg almost placed three coaches in the NCAA Tournament: Kelley’s men’s team at Defiance set a school record with 14 wins and advanced to the Heartland Conference championship game. Kelley was named Heartland Conference coach of the year for the second straight season, making for an even prouder mentor.

“This has given me more satisfaction than almost anything else I’ve done in the coaching profession,” said Tipping, a three-time regional coach of sthe year at Muhlenberg. “To know that you affected people in such a way that they want to do the same thing as you is very satisfying.”

Above: This is the 1995 team that made it to the “Final Four,” Topping and O’Donohue are next to each other in the back row, 5th and 6th from the left.

Left: Photo detail.





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