By Sally Tippett Rains
With this being Easter Week, former St. Louisan Sara Keene– like many parents– is flooded with memories of the many Easters where she and her husband Richard created a scavenger hunt for their three children on Easter morning before attending church. Now, the three kids are as scattered as the Easter eggs they collected in their baskets always were, but the mom has an Easter surprise in the “bag” for the family.
Belleville East High School graduate, Sara Keene is the owner and CEO of MVP Bags—something she would have never imagined herself doing 20 years ago. The mother of three– actually Dr. Sara Keene– holds a doctorate in Education, yet what started out as a necessity in her heart, has grown into a successful business for her.
MVP sports bag company sells backpacks and toiletry bags, and soon will have pet items; however her recent emphasis is a division called Girl Got Game.
“Girl Got Game is about promoting girls and women in sports as well as accessorizing in a great way,” she said. “Having been a softball coach for many years, I saw that options for that sport were so limited, so I wanted to expand and provide items for more than just soccer moms, baseball moms and basketball moms. I wanted to provide items that the girls who played softball liked, and that’s why I wanted to expand beyond baseball right away.”
Sara has definitely ‘got game” and her athleticism got her a basketball scholarship to Belleville Area Community College, where she earned her Associates Degree. She earned her Bachelor’s in Science at SIU and a few years later got her Masters there and then her doctorate.
It looked like her career path would be a lifelong educator, as she began her teaching career at Collinsville High School, coaching softball, volleyball, and basketball; eventually becoming the principal at Columbia High.
The best made plans can often take a different road than the one intended and that happened after she met her husband Richard Keene.
Some in the sports industry will recognize Keene’s father, Howard, a longtime Rawlings executive, who retired in 2008 after 34 years, many as president and chief operating officer– and many will recognize her husband’s name as a standout basketball player from the University of Illinois.
After eight years as assistant and then principal at Columbia High School and three as principal at Pattonville, and the addition of three children for Sara and Richard, the Keene’s moved to The Woodlands, Texas.
Sara Keene had been so popular as principal of Pattonville High School that when she resigned to move to Texas, Patch did an article on her, where she said “”My children already keep me busy, and I know when we transition to Houston we’ll find all sorts of activities to keep us busy.”
The photo, left, is courtesy of Patch and shows her at her desk packing up.
“My husband works in the gas and oil industry and his employer at the time was trying to get him to relocate to Houston for a few years,” she said.
Though she had advanced so far in her academic career she wanted to make the transition from the Midwest to Texas easier for her family so she decided to relinquish the full-time career and focus on a lifestyle where she could always be available for her children.
She knew she had to do something during the day while the kids were at school so she weighed several options, and drawing on her father-in-law’s connection to sports sales she decided to start a sports bag company in 2014. As the mother of athletes she attended many games and it was her experience with that that led her in the direction she was headed. Both sons played select baseball.
“At my son’s select baseball games, I noticed so many women wore bracelets and earrings made out of baseball skins and this inspired me,” she said. “Many of them also carried huge totes for all of their tournament goodies.”
Sara and Richard have enjoyed supporting their children and helping them grow their love of sports. Currently, RJ plays basketball for Boise State University, Sophia plays volleyball at Baylor University, and son Howie is still in high school playing sports; but while they were younger and in school she would work on her ideas.
One time, it just so happened Howard Keene was visiting them in Texas when she was brainstorming her ideas.
“I spoke with my father-in-law and he helped me navigate getting a prototype from two of the manufacturers for Rawlings,” she remembers. “I picked the ‘Catchall’ as my original bag and the ideas grew from there.”
The Catchall, shown in the photo, left is her original bag designed to carry all the items a mom needs for a day at the ballfield, including snacks and waters too. In her designs she wanted it to be durable and machine washable.
She enjoyed the act of working on the design for the bag.
“I loved being able to create,” she said.
In 2015, she was able to secure a manufacturer for the Catchall. It turned out to be a hit, and in 2016, she launched “MVPBags” which starting out with toiletry bags, backpacks and lanyards.
The Catchall became so successful it sold out and she is currently searching for a new manufacturer for them. She has many other bags and plenty in stock.
What is her favorite item?
“For personal use, it’s my wristlets,” she said. “They’re so versatile by allowing you to interchange sports easily or forgo carrying a larger bag, and they meet the NCAA and pro sport size requirements. The bag that seems to work for everyone is the toiletry bag. It makes so much sense and all ages can use it. It’s a great gift for men or women.”
Starting the company was challenging yet rewarding to Sara and it accomplished just what she had set out to do: she had a flexible career where she could put her family first.
Sara and Richard are shown in the photo left, with their children Sofia, RJ, and Howie.
“As a high school principal, I watched so many mothers who were exhausted from working all day and mentally too drained to help their children in decision making,” she said. “I knew that I wanted to be fully accessible and help guide my children through those extremely tough times of moving.”
For a while she attended trade shows, like the one shown in the photo, right, with the intent of getting her items in stores, but then Covid-19 hit and put a halt on the in-person trade shows. She was resourceful though and since the world had gone from “in person” to “online” she put effort into her online store.
“Currently, I only operate through web sales,” she said, “Because my truest dedication is to my kids first.
It has all worked out fine for her as she was able to dedicate her time to the recruiting that each of her children has had; and has given her the flexibility to support them throughout their current sports journeys.
She was able to go to Boise, Idaho to see her son RJ and the Boise State Broncos basketball team. Due to Covid-19 considerations RJ redshirted so they have not been able to see him in a game in a Boise State uniform yet, but they look forward to that day.
RJ, who had been recruited by many schools was on a trip to Baylor and Sara brought their daughter, Sophia. While RJ was seeing the basketball facilities, they took in a volleyball game and a year later it was Sophia who was being recruited by the Bears.
Sophia plays volleyball for Baylor, which isn’t too far for travel—only about 2 1/2 hours from their home. She was able to travel to see a road game when they played Rice this spring.
Sophia used to travel with Sara for the business before her volleyball days took over. After that, Sara began setting up volleyball tournaments across the country and taking advantage of combining the trips with business.
“A really incredible part of traveling with the product is bringing my friends together,” she said. “One time I rented a house for the War Eagle shopping weekend in Arkansas.”
The War Eagle Craft Show takes place every fall in War Eagle, Arkansas, a town which boasts of the War Eagle Mill, an actual working mill ,powered by an eighteen-foot cypress waterwheel. War Eagle is a tourist attraction and Sara enlisted friends to help her promote her products at the Craft Show one year.
“I had eight friends–one from St. Louis and the others from The Woodland– who joined me,” she said. “We worked four different venues simultaneously. It actually turned into a great gals trip.”
Their son, Howie, who was named for his grandpa plays for an AAU team called Team Temple. Richard and Sara have passed their Christian faith on to their children. Team Temple’s motto is “The Body Is A Temple.” Howie is also on the high school golf team. Once she gets his recruitment finished she says she will go back to the trade show, but for now the business is going strong with the online store and her kids still need her.
“I’m still attending athletic events every weekend, which is prime time for the shows,” she said. “Plus, my husband’s work requires him to travel.”
When she is on the road, she sports the travel bag and hopes both men and women will use them also.
“Our family is really a sports family. When my father-in-law was stationed at Ft. Benning, he met his athletic wife, my mother-in-law, Sandy, whose father actually had a stint playing for the Detroit Lions.
“There have been a lot of sports influences in our house, but Rich really gets most of the athleticism credit for our kids. He was a McDonald’s All American when playing for Collinsville High School. Then for college, he turned down a scholarship to Duke to stay close to home and play for the Fighting Illini at the University of Illinois—and in fact, played in the triple overtime Bragging Rights game that occurs annually with Mizzou.”
He not only played in it but was one of the stars. That memorable game took place in 1993 and though it was a heartbreaking loss for the Illini, Keene scored 17 points. The name Richard Keene is familiar to Illinois basketball fans as he scored 1,145 points and ranks among the school’s career leaders in three-pointers (237) and assists. During his four years at the school, Keene helped the Illini reach three NCAA tournaments and one NIT.
Since her daughter and both sons love sports so much, she says moving to Texas—a warm-weather climate was the best decision they could have made.
“I wanted my children to have the experience of playing outside year-round and so I agreed full heartedly, when the decision to move came up,” said Sara.
She is excited for her son RJ to come back to St. Louis in the fall when the Broncos travel to play Saint Louis University. As many family members and friends as she can assemble are planning on being at the game.
“RJ attended Willowbrook grade school, in the Pattonville School District, of the Greater St. Louis area. He broke the running record before our move at the end of his third grade year,” she said. “I’m hoping he and his Boise State teammates will get to visit his old school while they are in town for the SLU game.
It will also be fun for Sara because SLU is where she completed her doctorate.
These days of trying to stay up to date on three different teams as each child pursues their dream to play sports in college are special to her. Maybe it was because she did not have the parental support that she gives to her family.
“I come from a broken home,” she said. “My biological mother left our family which included my two older brothers, when I was three years old.”
Her dad, Bob Thurwalker remarried and with the blended family that came with it she became the youngest of five. She says her height and her kids’ heights come from her (biological) mother’s side. Though she was only three-years-old she remembers watching her mother play in softball leagues, smacking the balls over the fence. Though her mother left, she stayed in touch with that side of the family.
“I credit her side of the family for my love of Christ, said Sara Keene. “My maternal grandmother and great-grandmother were my mentors in trusting in God during my tumultuous youth.”
Sara constantly sees things that others may call “coincidences” in their lives as “God winks.” She has seen so many of them. Sports played a big part of her home life growing up with her father and his wife during their marriage. Basketball was his favorite sport.
“He helped foster the love of the game in my house growing up,” she said. “He was a huge Celtics fan and we had a big satellite dish in the backyard so we could watch all of their games.”
As a child, she observed the grownups in her life and learned from each one of them. As she said, her Christian faith came from her mother’s side, her love of sports from her father and her business sense may have come from, Merril Vitek, her stepmother.
“She wasn’t interested in sports, but she was a business woman and I watched her run a successful business until her retirement.”
She says that despite her father and stepmother’s marriage not working out they have remained close over the years.
Her dad worked for Union Pacific Railroad from 18-68 for 50 years. He wished for all of his children to attend and graduate from college, but the burden of financing it was on them.
Sara and her two brothers had the drive and determination to figure out a way to go to college and graduate and all of them have become successful. Her oldest brother was able to attend college through academic scholarships; her second brother is 6’7” and played basketball on full scholarships, first at Belleville Area College and then Western Carolina. He is the Athletic Director at Riverview Gardens and both of his daughters played college basketball on scholarships. His youngest is at Evansville currently as a junior.
“The reason I played basketball was to pay for my schooling,” she said.
“My husband and I had incredibly different upbringings, which is probably why I respected his father so much as a stable, loving, peaceful, providing strong man,” said Sara. That is who my husband has grown to be.”
She gives Rich and his father Howard much credit for the stability and love in their children’s lives and their love for sports.
“While I did not benefit from my father-in-law’s amazing support and sports wisdom, as a young athlete, my children had his full support until his health failed him,” she said.
Howard was very proud of RJ for getting the scholarship to Boise State.
“He did get a chance to wear a Boise State hoodie before he joined his brothers in Heaven,” she said. “Howard played basketball and baseball on scholarship at LSU, before returning home after his junior year to Sparta due to financial need.
He was drafted into the Army and played basketball for the Army team and finally, after his service ended he played basketball on scholarship at Southern Illinois at Carbondale where he finished his Bachelors in Business.
Howard met his wife athletic wife Sandy, whose father played for a time for the Detroit Lions when he was stationed at Ft Benning.
Sara and Richard celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary this year, and what a year it was for the family as Boise State made it to the NCAA Tournament—for the first time since 2015. Richard was able to go to Portland, Oregon to watch RJ’s team play in the tournament.
“Both RJ and Sophia are pursuing business degrees because of what I’ve learned from starting the company,” she said. “They both have the right personalities for business: RJ in entrepreneurship and Sophia in marketing. I’ve given them leeway to bring ideas to the table for MVP Bags and even to start promoting the business.”
Sports and business in the family has led to much joy and happiness as Sara continues to support her family doing what they love doing—playing sports. She is also continuing to build her business with her sports bags.
Her Easter surprise? We’re not going to blow it by revealing it.
“It all works out exactly like it’s supposed to,” she said.
For more information on the totes, travel bags, purses and other items, check out her website: Girlgotgamebags.com.
Special Discount to STLSportsPage.com readers: If you check out her bags, she is offering 25% off with promocode “HeIsRisen” CLICK HERE
Sara’s Belleville East high school basketball team.
Sara has taken a shot many times in life. (Photos courtesy Belleville East High School)