O'Neill Enjoying Coaching

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Seattle University Women's Basketball
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Kevin Pelton, stormbasketball.com | February 19, 2010

As her first season on the sidelines draws to a close, former Seattle Storm forward Kristen O'Neill is appreciating the opportunity to get into coaching. O'Neill, who played for the Storm in 2008 after starring for Meadowdale High School and the University of Washington, has "traded in the high tops for high heels," as she puts it, joining the Seattle University coaching staff this season.

"There's been a huge learning curve, but I'm really enjoying the experience," O'Neill said. "It's been a lot of fun."

O'Neill, left with Joan Bonvicini, is in her first year as an assistant coach for Seattle University.
Photo via jlindstr.smugmug.com

During her playing days, O'Neill always had a feeling coaching might be in her future. For a player known for her cerebral play and work ethic, it was a natural fit, and O'Neill was drawn to coaching.

"Some of the best mentors I've had in my life have been my coaches," she said. "They have helped make me who I am. Loving the game as much as I do and just wanting to be a good role model in my life has made me want to make an impact in the life of others the way my mentors made an impact in my life. I thought of coaching as something I might enjoy.

"As my professional career continued, I thought even more seriously about it, knowing that when I stopped playing I really wanted to give coaching a shot. It's been a huge blessing to stay in Seattle and have my first coaching job be at the Division I level in my hometown."

That chance came about last summer, after a knee injury forced O'Neill to forgo an invitation to training camp with the Storm. Thinking ahead to her post-playing career, she started a basketball training business, O'Neill Hoops, but also stayed open to coaching opportunities.

When the head job came open at Seattle U, O'Neill watched closely to see who would be hired. The selection of Joan Bonvicini, against whom O'Neill played when Bonvicini was coaching at the University of Arizona, came as great news. O'Neill had a connection in former Husky assistant Shimmy Gray-Miller, who served on Bonvicini's staff before being named the head coach at St. Louis University.

"I knew I wanted to get into coaching but I wanted to learn from the right mentor," explained O'Neill. "Joan got hired in early, early August. I was actually in South Korea working a camp for the WKBL, which is their professional league over there. I saw she got hired and I knew she's an incredible, incredible coach, so it was almost one of those too-good-to-be-true moments. Joan's a winner, she's a champion. She's somebody who has very high expectations, yet she sees the bigger picture.

"I called her as soon as I landed. I was at baggage claim and left a message on her phone. One thing led to another and I got an interview and got the job that day."

Bonvicini was hired to lead Seattle U's transition from NCAA Division II to Division I. After playing a majority of their schedule against D-I foes a year ago, the Redhawks have played a full D-I slate this season. The adjustment has been a tough one at times, especially because two of last year's three leading scorers (forwards Mercedes Alexander and Breanna Salley) were unexpectedly ruled permanently ineligible by the NCAA. A difficult schedule has also put Seattle U on the road for 12 of its last 17 games. Yet, as the season winds down - the Redhawks host Cal State Bakersfield tomorrow at the Connolly Center in their home finale - O'Neill has welcomed the tests.

"I enjoy the challenge," she said. "We're in a transition right now going from Division II to Division I. With that, our staff has been given a lot of responsibility. There are a bunch of different tasks and every day is something new to learn. I'm one for a challenge and I enjoy coming in every day and learning something new."

Drawing on Bonvicini's 29 years of experience as a college head coach, as well as the guidance of former coaches like Karen Blair (her coach at Meadowdale and a legend in the Washington prep basketball community) and June Daugherty (her coach at UW who is now at Washington State University), O'Neill finds herself growing as a coach and a teacher.

"I have been someone that has always tried to be a student of the game," she said, "but this is a whole new level - a new way of seeing the game and more importantly communicating the game. It's one thing to just go out there and do it. It's another to have to explain it, demonstrate and find a way to communicate it. Each person is different in how they're going to learn, so it's finding different ways to communicate with different people and different personality types. I've enjoyed that challenge and the process of teaching the game."

Already over her first season, O'Neill is seeing that effort on the sidelines pay off. That, more than anything else, stands out as a highlight of her coaching career thus far.

"This team has gone through a lot of adversity with different players being ineligible and then obviously making that transition," said O'Neill. "Just seeing them come together as a team - as a coach, it's very rewarding to see seeds that were planted earlier in the year really starting to bloom. I really enjoy teaching the game and finding different ways to make things make sense and have the team understand what we're communicating. That's part of the thing, too, about being a coach - how frustrating when you say one thing and they do another, but it's a matter of staying patient with the process. When they finally get it, it finally clicks, it's very rewarding."