By KIRBY ARNOLD
SEATTLE – The Real Deal?
A year ago, a nickname was the only clue to the talent that Kellie O’Neill brings to the basketball court.
Bitten by a bruised foot and a dose of freshman tentativeness, O’Neill rarely got a chance to show University of Washington fans what she made absolutely clear as a high school player at Meadowdale: O’Neill is a star offensively and defensively who can play with anyone in the country.
In high school, she definitely was The Real Deal.
O’Neill led Meadowdale to a 100-10 record in her four years there, including four trips to the state tournament. She finished her prep career with 1,414 points, 810 rebounds and nearly as many honors, it seemed. The Herald named O’Neill its 1999 Player of the Year, and the Associated Press named her that season’s Class 3A state player of the year.
O’Neill, a 6-foot-1 forward who is one of three area high school stars playing for the Huskies, along with reserves Heather Reichmann of King’s and Sarah Duncan of Lake Stevens. Three more are headed to the UW next season – Kristen O’Neill (Kellie’s sister) of Meadowdale, Kayla Burt of Arlington and Kirsten Brockman of Snohomish.
Kellie O’Neill, a 6-foot-1 forward, made her impact early at the UW.
She climbed into the starting lineup by the third game last season. Then, three weeks into the season, she injured the foot and never was the same.
“She was averaging about 10 points and 10 rebounds a game,” UW coach June Daugherty said. “I think that’s pretty real deal to me. Especially in her freshman year.”
O’Neill scored a season-high 16 points at Nebraska and, at one time while she was healthy, was among the top five rebounders in the Pacific-10 Conference.
Even as O’Neill tried to play through the pain, her numbers weren’t bad (averaging better than six points and five rebounds). But, finally, O’Neill couldn’t go any longer and missed the final five games of the season.
“She had a very serious injury,” Daugherty said. “She rested it quite a bit at the end of last year and missed some games. And she had some down time this past spring.”
This season, there’s been no residue of the injury. In body and mind, O’Neill has returned to the promise that she brought to Montlake as a freshman.
“I feel better than I did at any point last year,” she said. “I’m a lot more relaxed this season and I’m 100 percent over my injury. This summer was a big building point for me conditioning-wise and strength-wise. I feel like I’m at a place now where I can relax and just have a good time with this program. Last year I was so nervous.”
In two games, O’Neill is averaging nine points, 4.5 rebounds and showing no sign of the injury. She made six of 12 shots from the field and scored 13 points in Sunday’s victory at Michigan, which had beaten perennial power Louisiana Tech just two days earlier.
“She doesn’t think it’s bothering her now, and it sure doesn’t look like it,” Daugherty said. “She has really enhanced her strength and conditioning over the summer and hopefully we’ll keep that injury away. I would say if she’s not our most consistent post player so far, she’s first or second.”
As tough as last season was on both O’Neill and the Huskies (who went 8-22), she is thankful for the whole experience.
“It was really good for me to go through that,” she said. “Even my freshman year in high school was a huge learning experience. When I came here, I was just baffled at the concepts that we were learning. But all the things that I thought were so hard last year I really don’t find so hard this year.”
That’s a comfort to Daugherty, who is counting on O’Neill to carry a huge load on both ends of the floor this season.
“She’s got a very pivotal role,” Daugherty said. “Offensively she’s been very steady scoring, especially on the low block. She’s been stepping out 12-15 feet and knocking down the open jump shot. She’s a very versatile post player. She can post you up with her back to the basket or she can back out and knock down the shot.
“The other thing we expect is that she defend very well inside using her strength. She’s a very strong, athletic woman who needs to make sure she’s gaining the upper hand position-wise. Rebounding is very critical for her.”
When O’Neill committed to the Huskies, she continued a trickle of players from Snohomish County-area high schools that is fast becoming a steady stream into the program.
Reichmann, a junior forward from King’s, and Duncan, a senior guard from Lake Stevens, also are on this season’s squad and the commitments for next season from three other area stars say volumes about girls basketball in Snohomish County.
“It no doubt it speaks for itself about the quality of coaching there, from the elementary Boys and Girls Clubs to the summer coaches right up to the junior highs and high schools,” Daugherty said. “There’s obviously a lot of talent, but the talent doesn’t become what it has become from that area if it’s not because of great guidance and teaching at all levels.”
O’Neill is the leader of the local pack on this Husky team, but Reichmann and Duncan play key roles as well.
Reichmann, a 6-1 forward, endured a painful season because of a shoulder that was injured early in the year and remained “loose” the rest of the way.
“It dislocated about four times in the course of that year,” she said.
Reichmann underwent surgery in the offseason to repair a torn rotator cuff and tighten some stretched ligaments.
“I’ve been doing most of the lifts in the weight room, and it’s been fine in practice except when I stretch out to go up for a rebound,” she said.
Daugherty emphasizes defense and rebounding as the keys to UW’s revival this season, and she expects Reichman to fill an important role.
“She has pretty much the same role as Kellie, although she’s coming off the bench right now,” Daugherty said. “She has to be able to defend the low block and defend well inside. She has to be able to take the shots that are available and defensively make sure she’s getting great position (for rebounds). The big thing for her is rebounding and running the floor.”
Duncan averaged 10 minutes per game and was named the team’s most inspirational player last season.
“Sarah is a little sparkplug,” Daugherty said. “She brings a lot of energy and a lot of leadership to the floor. She knows our system and she’s able to get her teammates involved, and Sarah gets us fired up as a team.”