Billy Keenist Jr. talks to the Berkley High football team following a scrimmage last season. Keenist was named the new coach at Troy Athens Feb. 26.

Billy Keenist Jr. talks to the Berkley High football team following a scrimmage last season. Keenist was named the new coach at Troy Athens Feb. 26.

Photo by Donna Dalziel

Keenist Jr. named new leader at Athens

By: Timothy Pontzer | Troy Times | Published March 6, 2018


TROY — As the Troy Athens football program embarks on its first season in the Oakland Activities Association White Division, the club will have a fresh face manning the sidelines.

Billy Keenist Jr. was named the new coach of the Red Hawks Feb. 26, replacing Josh Heppner, who held the role for eight seasons. Only 29, Keenist already had an office in the building; now a new title will need to be added to his door.

Keenist has been teaching physical education and health to all four grades at Athens for the past three years. He believes already being a member of the campus community on a daily basis is vital for his new gig on the gridiron.

“The big thing is I’m a teacher at Athens. That’s where I earn my living and obviously spend a lot of my time,” Keenist explained. “I really think that high school programs are most successful when the coach is in the building every day. I’m not saying you can’t be successful in other places, but being there every day is really important to me.”

Keenist leaves his previous spot at Berkley High, where he earned his initial head coaching job. He led the Bears to a 1-8 record last year in his first and only season at the helm.

“It was very tough to leave. I love Berkley and the kids were phenomenal,” Keenist said. “We had a tough season, but they stuck with me. We started lifting after Thanksgiving and we had almost 40 guys in the weight room. I really liked the direction we were heading, but this was something I couldn’t pass up.”

Prior to coaching Berkley, Keenist served under Heppner for two seasons, working with the quarterbacks and wideouts for a year before a stint as offensive coordinator in 2016.

“I couldn’t be more happy for him and the kids. Billy is a really good guy,” Heppner said. “When he came on board with me, I could tell there was something special about him. He has a lot of passion and the kids bond really well with him. When he was offered the Berkley job, I didn’t want to see him go because of that connection he had with the kids.”

Now an assistant at Rochester Adams, Heppner made the decision to step down for personal reasons. He said he is thrilled that Keenist is succeeding him.

“Look, I knew I had to move on regardless of who the new coach was going to be,” Heppner explained. “But getting Billy is great. I know he’ll bring a lot of energy. He eats, sleeps and breathes football because of that passion he has for the kids. Athens needs a guy who’s in the building every single day, and I know the program will be in good hands.”

Keenist believes his previous work at Athens will carry over to 2018.

“I’ve taught a lot of the freshman football players, and I know some of the older guys from being an assistant,” he said. “I have a good relationship with them and I know I can build on that.”

A 2006 graduate of Oxford High, Keenist was an assistant for three years at his alma mater under longtime coach Bud Rowley. He considers Heppner, Rowley and John Walker, the first coach in Athens history, as key mentors.

“I’m very close friends with John Walker. I’ve spoken to him numerous times about everything that goes into Athens football,” Keenist said. “I’m very excited to represent this program. Heppner is one of my best friends. When I was going through the struggles of a 1-8 season as a first-year coach, he was someone I could call at midnight on Friday to get encouragement.”

With his inaugural year as a head coach already out of the way, Keenist believes he will benefit by having already experienced all the nuances of the role itself.

“At Berkley, I learned a ton. There’s so much that goes into it,” Keenist said. “Coach Rowley told me that there’s so much about this job that you only learn once you actually do it — fundraising, ordering equipment, communicating with parents, practice planning and more. I thought I was ready, but you don’t really learn it all until you just jump into the fire and go.”

Keenist held his first team meeting March 1, with lifting starting March 2. He said over 50 kids attended the initial session, a positive sign for things to come. Keenist said he hopes to implement a strong rushing attack, using elements of power running and the option.

“I like to run the ball. I played quarterback (at Oxford), so a lot of people think I’d like to throw 100 times, but I’d like to do the opposite, honestly,” Keenist explained. “The biggest thing I want to do is get tough both physically and mentally. We’ll have that mindset in everything we do. I’m looking for players that want to do that. We’re not going to be flashy at all, just tough.”

Keenist looks to establish that mindset in all aspects of Athens football. Athens went 0-9 last season while in the OAA Red, but the change in division should offer a more competitive schedule.

“Success on the field has eluded Athens for a while, and I think there’s a lot of reasons for that,” Keenist said. “I think the biggest thing we can do is just focus on doing each of the little things at a high level and going from there. It doesn’t really matter who you play — there’s tough competition in the White or wherever. We just have to get better as a team. I live by the mantra of coming early and staying late, and that’s what we’re going to do here. The biggest goal I have for myself and Athens is just to work hard.”