Leader Blues

Monday, April 06, 2009

SPORTS >> Leader Player of the Year: Ty O'Neill, Beebe

By JASON KING
Leader sportswriter

Lora Jackson is a realist. Especially when it comes to replacing Ty O’Neill.

The head Lady Badger has solid talent returning in 2009-10 after an unbeaten run through the 5A-Southeast Conference and a state semifinal appearance this past season. But when it comes to filling the shoes of her departing all-purpose guard, she’s aware of the enormity of the challenge.

“You don’t (replace a Ty O’Neill),” Jackson said before an outburst of laughter. “You can’t look from season to season trying to replace people, you just have to look at the players that you have coming back and evaluate your strengths and weaknesses according to the players that you have. You have to start there and build on it year to year.”

O’Neill, a three-year starter and all-state selection, averaged 24 points per game in the 2008-09 season, as well as five rebounds, four steals and two assists per game. She led the Lady Badgers in scoring throughout the season, including an impressive run through the 5A state tournament. All of that has earned her the 2009 Leader Player of the Year.

O’Neill’s presence on the court is what made the Lady Badgers the preseason nod to win the 5A-Southeast Conference. She had helped lead Beebe to a title the previous year in the 5A-East Conference.

But even after the the Lady Badgers ran the table in conference play, few gave them much of a chance in the postseason.

“I heard that (on message boards),” said O’Neill. “A lot of people talked about that and said that when we got to the state tournament that it would be difficult for us because of our conference. It made me feel good about it, because we beat Greenwood. Everybody talked about Greenwood and the girl that scored 58 points (Laura Davidson) and how they beat Vilonia, so it made me feel really good.”

O’Neill’s 24 points, seven rebounds and four assists staked Beebe to a rout of West Helena in the first round. She followed that with a 23-point performance to help lead Beebe past Greenwood in the quarterfinals, and send the Lady Badgers to the semifinals for the first time in more than a decade.

“It was not only good, but fun,” said O’Neill. “We had a tough preseason, and I think that really prepared us for our conference play. And when we got to the state tournament, we kind of played on a different level, a higher level. A lot of people didn’t expect it, so they were surprised how far we went.”

Beebe was eight minutes away from making the state finals and getting one more shot at powerhouse Vilonia — a team it had lost to decisively early in the season. The Lady Badgers held a 40-26 lead over heavy favorite Siloam Springs heading into the fourth quarter, but a 29-point outburst by the Lady Panthers in the final period led to a 55-52 comeback win, sending O’Neill and her teammates home one game short of school history with a 20-9 final record. Though it was ultimately a losing effort, O’Neill finished her high-school career just as impressively as she started it three years earlier, leading all scorers with 26 points.

“I didn’t think the game was over,” said O’Neill. “The game’s not over until it’s zero on the clock. We kind of got tired in that final game. We had played two games already that week. I don’t really know what happened. I just remember looking at the clock, and we were down by three. It was heartbreaking, because I really thought we were going to go to the state finals and beat Vilonia. Honestly, I thought that.”

While the loss was a tough one to swallow for O’Neill and teammates, she still has plenty to look forward to. Her basketball talent and 3.2 GPA has garnered attention from Conner State Community College in Warner, Okla., and a possible opportunity in the future at Mississippi State.

Her career interests include physical therapy/athletic training, but she also hinted that she might be interested in following Jackson’s footsteps. Jackson, who was a Lady Badger back in the mid 1980s, coached for a number of years at Vilonia before returning to her high-school alma mater.

No one had a better seat to watch O’Neill’s dynamic career than Jackson, who cited a 30-point performance against Batesville in her junior season as her most memorable. O’Neill put up all 30 of those points in one half, and sat out the second half while the seniors lived out their final minutes of glory on their home court. The win over the Lady Pioneers that night also helped Beebe clinch its first conference title in more than a decade.

“This year, she was scoring like she was for us, and everybody knows you’ve got to do what you can to keep her from getting her points,” said Jackson. “I think she did see some physical nights and some nights that maybe weren’t as physical.

“I think she saw a little bit of all of it. We saw that box-and-one this year. We saw it more this year than I’ve seen in my whole coaching career.”

O’Neill’s ball-handling quickness and ability to drive the lane, as well as her solid outside shooting made her a threat any time she had the ball. The seemingly endless stream of junk defenses aimed at containing O’Neill often backfired, and her ability to find an open teammate gave the Lady Badgers an added dimension that doesn’t always come with high-profile players.

“It’s easier in ways because you know some things for certain,” said Jackson. “With her, for example, you knew you weren’t going to get pressed very often. And if you did, you were going to be able to handle that pressure consistently. This year, you knew that hopefully, you were going to get anywhere from 20 to 30 points a game from her.”

Next year will not exactly be a rebuilding season for coach Jackson, who has speedy shooting guard Geneshia Edwards and solid post player Danna Jackson returning, but the departure of O’Neill will leave a lot of voids, she said, leadership being the biggest of those.

“She was an action leader,” said Jackson. “She got out there and did what she had to do as far as work and play. I do feel like this year, she became more of a verbal leader, especially once conference season rolled around.

“She became a verbal leader at times when she felt like she needed to. I think that just comes with maturity. I felt like she fit that role very well and everyone responded to it.”