Friendly foes

Kayla Burt and Kristen O’Neill are pals, rivals and soon-to-be UW teammates

By AARON COE

Herald Writer

The fiercest of floor rivals got a glimpse over the summer of what the future holds.

Meadowdale’s Kristen O’Neill and Arlington’s Kayla Burt, a pair of future Huskies, played on the same team for once and liked what they saw. And after a couple of years of staring down one another as Western Conference 3A foes, the point guards became close friends.

"We’ve known each other for so long, just from playing and kind of knowing each other’s name," said Burt, who earned All-Area Player of the Year honors after a spectacular junior season. "We became good friends, and now that we’re going to college together, it makes it even better."

When Burt and O’Neill are on the same team, good things happen. They played on the Yakima Elite, a team comprised of some of the state’s best players, and only lost three games all summer. The Elite won the Oregon City Tournament, considered among the West Coast’s most prestigious tournaments.

Both players led their teams to the state playoffs last season, and they hope to be there again this year.

Before last year, not everyone knew O’Neill’s first name. She was Kellie’s little sister. Kellie O’Neill, who holds Meadowdale’s career scoring and rebounding records, is now lighting up UW scoreboards as a sophomore starter.

Kristen, however, is much more than Kellie’s sibling now. When you lead your team to a state championship, people tend to remember your name.

Kristen O’Neill, who had a reputation as a stout defender long before the state tournament, made many believe she was the state’s best defensive player during the postseason.

The Mavericks, who finished third in the Wesco 3A, and were third at the Northwest District tournament, shocked perhaps even themselves by winning the 2000 state title. Kellie O’Neill and four of her teammates, who had anchored a group that went 100-10 during their careers, had moved on after finishing second in the 1999 tournament. Virtually nothing was expected of the Mavericks last season, especially when they entered the tournament with the worst record (15-9) in the bracket.

Kristen O’Neill says the Mavs won it all last year because the pressure was gone. But the expectations will be back this year. All but two players return from the championship team. Jane Ireland and Yvette Avila will be missed — both are playing college ball — but the Mavericks are loaded.

"We’re going to play like we’re the underdog," O’Neill said. "We don’t feel any pressure."

At 6 feet 1 with a long wingspan, O’Neill is tall enough to guard any position, and has the quickness to stay with smaller guards. Her averages of 14 points, six rebounds, five assists, four steals and 2.5 blocks are impressive, but perhaps the most telling statistic is one that most teams don’t track. O’Neill registered 180 deflections during her junior season. Her perimeter defense made it virtually impossible for opponents to pass the ball inside.

"Defense is her strength," Meadowdale coach Karen Blair said. "She may not put up the huge offensive numbers that some players do, but she has that capability. She can defend anyone."

Burt and O’Neill, who will be joined by Snohomish senior center Kirsten Brockman (out for the year with a knee injury) at Washington next season, each had their pick of Pac-10 schools and other colleges across the country. Both are versatile players who can play and defend three or four positions. O’Neill can shut anyone down, and Burt can light anyone up.

Burt averaged 22 points and six rebounds during her junior year, and had a penchant for taking over the latter portions of close games. Unlike O’Neill, Burt might need to keep a copy of her team roster in her pocket for the first couple of games. The Eagles lost eight seniors from their 2000 Wesco 3A champion team, leaving Burt with some unfamiliar faces.

"It’s going a lot better than I thought it would," Burt said. "I’m looking forward to seeing how we match up against other people. I think we’ll be all right."

O’Neill and Burt may be close friends these days, but there is only one conference championship. Both would like to have it. Monroe, which returns most of its players from a team that was seventh in the state and has a flashy point guard of its own in Fauziya Muhammad, is capable of leaving Meadowdale and Arlington empty-handed. Stanwood, which returns versatile forward Tina Donahue, will also be a factor.

O’Neill and Burt made the Huskies’ future look bright during the summer, but that matters little. A conference, or even better yet, a state title, would provide one of them with four years worth of bragging rights.

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