By Bob Narang
In the sport of soccer, Denny Clanton has nearly done it all.
He earned all-state honors during an illustrious playing career at Waubonsie Valley in Aurora, Ill. In college, he starred at the University of Dayton, where he was named to the All-America Third Team in 2003.
In 2004, he was drafted in the fourth round of the MLS Draft by the Chicago Fire. Last spring, he became a high school girls soccer coach at Mother McAuley in Chicago.
“I think even with my background, I never thought in a million years I would be coaching high school soccer,” said Clanton, who played club for the Chicago Magic. “I absolutely loved my first year coaching.”
The Mighty Macs showed tremendous improvement in Clanton’s inaugural season with an 8-10 overall record, which doubled the 2016 win total. With 12 returnees back this spring, Clanton is looking for another big step forward for the once prestigious program.
“A lot of what we’re doing now is trying to take our program to the next level,” Clanton said. “The kids have been working really hard.
“We’re weightlifting two days a week. We have a lot of kids and a big group attending those sessions.
“I know a lot of this is new for them, especially the weightlifting aspect. Not only is it going to make them stronger, but it’s a confidence booster.
“When your body is strong, you reduce injuries. They are starting to realize the importance of working hard in the offseason, so we can hit the ground running once the season gets here.”
Senior forward Clare Murphy, a three-year varsity standout, said Clanton has put his stamp on the program in a positive way.
“When I was a sophomore, we weren’t training as hard,” Murphy said. “Coach is teaching us so much more, and I’ve learned so much from him the last two years. I can’t wait for this season.”
Murphy noted that Clanton often spiced up practices last season when he took the field with his players.
“We’re just doing so much more now, from our training in the summer and offseason conditioning,” Murphy said. “We’re preparing for the season and this is good for the future of the program. Coach also loves to play with us, and it’s so much fun when he does. It makes us so much better.”
Clanton, who also was a standout basketball player in high school, relies on his vast background in soccer and receives valuable advice from his wife’s family as he’s rebuilding the program.
His wife, Ashley Luke Clanton, was an All-America basketball player at Waubonsie Valley. She played in college at Penn State and DePaul and is now the girls basketball coach and assistant athletic director at Mother McAuley.
Ashley’s brother, R.J., played tight end for Penn State and one year in the NFL with the Seattle Seahawks. Her dad, B.J., coached high school football at Waubonsie Valley and Danville.
“We all bounce a lot of ideas off one another, because the whole family was a coach at one time and has done well,” Clanton said. “With Ashley’s dad, we talk about different ideas on how to develop and interact with kids.”
Clanton added some new touches to the schedule for this season, as the Mighty Macs will be playing in the PepsiCo Showdown for the second straight year and competing in a tournament at Disney World.
“I’m expecting a lot from them, so we are running things like a professional program,” Clanton said. “The kids work really hard, and they know I’m not going to let up on them.”
Clanton expects Murphy and Emily Lieser to provide leadership and experience, and he’s anticipating sophomore goalie Caitlin Fitzsimmons, senior midfielder Isabella Garrity and junior midfielder Grace Hynes to be three other key pieces for the Mighty Macs this season.
“Caitlin started every game last year, and she did a great job for us,” Clanton said. “If you watched her on the field, I don’t think anyone would’ve thought that she was a freshman goalie.
“Caitlin has really been working hard this offseason. Izzy is very technical and understands the game.
“I’ve seen Izzy develop into a strong leader these past two years. Grace reads the game well, and we’re looking for her to control the game a bit more.”
Besides helping the Mighty Macs improve on the pitch, Clanton said he’s focusing on his players becoming even more involved in the community.
His team participated in the Chicago Polar Plunge last year and donated toys and bikes during the Buddy’s HELPERS Challenge in December. Buddy’s HELPERS is the charitable and community service arm of the PepsiCo Showdown.
Clanton is one of the few African American high school soccer coaches in the Chicago metro area. HE has noticed an uptick in African American soccer players and coaches than when he played – especially at the youth levels.
“It’s something that is growing,” Clanton said. “When I was playing club soccer, you didn’t see a whole lot of African American players playing soccer.
“Now it’s an eye opener for me, because a lot of teams do have African American players. It’s growing and I definitely see a lot more interest. In the next few years, we’ll see more (African American) coaches pop up, too.”
Until then, Clanton is excited about the development of his own program becoming a consistent winner.
“I’m really looking to lead McAuley soccer to another level and put us on the map – not only on the South Side, but hopefully in the Chicagoland area,” Clanton said. “The main goal is to be a girls soccer powerhouse again.”