SEATTLE — When fourth-grader Kristen O’Neill showed up for her first University of Washington basketball camp 16 years ago, there were two things she never could have imagined from her future.
One was playing professionally. Women couldn’t possibly get paid for playing basketball, could they?
The other thing O’Neill couldn’t fathom back then was rooting against her beloved Huskies.
Having already spent four years playing professionally — mostly overseas but also for 11 games with the WNBA’s Seattle Storm — O’Neill will break through another barrier tonight. The life-long fan of UW women’s basketball will face the Huskies tonight as an assistant coach at Seattle University.
“Being on the sidelines and preparing to coach against them, it’s been interesting,” O’Neill said Tuesday afternoon via telephone. “But it’ll be fun.”
To see Kristen O’Neill at a UW basketball game is nothing new. She started going to Husky games in kindergarten and went on to become a three-time team captain at UW.
But tonight, she’ll take a break from her life-long dedication.
“I’m a Husky fan for life, but I won’t be rooting for them” tonight, O’Neill said. “I’m absolutely still a Husky at heart. But (tonight) I’ll be Seattle University all the way.”
O’Neill’s coaching career lasted just 10 games before her allegiances were tested.
The 26-year-old is in her first season as an assistant at SU, having given up her career as a player. After playing professionally in Spain and Ireland, where she was once named league MVP, O’Neill decided to hang up her sneakers earlier this year so that she could get closer to her hometown of Lynnwood. The former Meadowdale High School star formed an athletic training business called O’Neill Hoops and kept one eye on openings in the coaching world.
When word got around that Seattle U. head coach Joan Bonvicini might be looking for an assistant in August, O’Neill gave her a call and landed an interview. The pair had lunch together, and Bonvicini was so struck by O’Neill’s charisma and knowledge of the game that she hired her as their meal came to a conclusion.
“Everyone who knew her from U-Dub and the Storm, they raved about her,” Bonvicini said. “She had impeccable credentials. And everything they’ve said about her is true.”
Assisting at a school that is trying to make the first-year transition to Division I athletics, O’Neill has seen her Redhawks take some lumps along the way. Seattle U. lost its first seven games, including three consecutive road games against Big East and Big Ten foes, before breaking through with a win over Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Nov. 29.
“It was definitely a long-time coming,” said O’Neill, whose Redhawks are now 2-8 heading into tonight’s home game against UW. “It was like a monkey off our backs. We’ve been improving every game, but it just wasn’t showing up in the win column.”
O’Neill has never looked back on her playing career, even though she’s still relatively young. While there are times when she might feel an urge to go back out and compete, O’Neill knows she’s at the right place in her career.
“I get a lot of joy out of teaching the game,” O’Neill said. “It’s rewarding to show a player how to do something and then see her execute it, the way her confidence builds. It’s been really rewarding. The girls are eager to learn.”
Of all the adjustments O’Neill has made from player to coach, her most awkward one might come tonight. For a few hours, she won’t be rooting for the Huskies, but against them.
“I’m so invested here at Seattle U. that it should be fine,” O’Neill said. “This is my job now. U-Dub is just another opponent.”
But in the eyes of Husky Nation, O’Neill is not just another assistant coach.
“It’s going to be fun squaring off against her,” said UW assistant coach Loree Payne, who played with O’Neill for two years with the Huskies. “It’s always good to see friendly faces you’ve shared a lot of memories with. I’m sure it will be interesting for her to face her former team. But it’ll be fun.”
The Huskies are battling some nagging injuries heading into tonight’s game. Head coach Tia Jackson said that guard Kristi Kingma (ankle), center Laura McLellan (knee) and guard Sara Mosiman are all hobbled. McLellan was the only one from that group who had been cleared to play as of Tuesday afternoon. Jackson also said that Liz Lay is still not quite ready to return from a knee injury. … Seattle U.’s third-leading scorer is Mountlake Terrace graduate Tatiana Heck, a junior post player who is averaging 8.1 points and 4.5 rebounds per game this season. “Tat’s doing well,” SU’s Bonvicini said. “She’s a hard worker who uses her body well. She’s really maintained her fitness level. She’s strong and powerful.” … While this marks the first inter-city meeting between the two schools as Division I programs, UW and Seattle U. have met 14 times. The Huskies have won 11 of those meetings. The Redhawks haven’t beaten UW since 1981.