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From rookie to champion coach, O'Neil has succeeded

Published 3/16/2013

From rookie to champion coach, O'Neil has succeeded

By BRETT MARSHALL

bmarshall@gctelegram.com

When a raw rookie coach took over a moribund basketball program at Frankfort High School, nobody could have anticipated what eventually transpired over the nearly next three decades.

In 1986, Glenn O'Neil was fresh out of college and looking for a job.

Frankfort, located north of Manhattan and a small Class 2A school, was more than two decades removed from a brief run at state basketball success.

In 1972-73-74, the Wildcats had a pair of state runner-up finishes sandwiched around a state championship. From there, though, the program went downhill.

That's what O'Neil, now having finished his 17th season at Scott City with his third consecutive Class 3A state championship tucked away (fourth overall, 2006 Class 4A), found when he arrived in Frankfort those many years ago.

"They had won six games in three seasons before I got there," said O'Neil, who for the third consecutive year garnered The Telegram's Boys Coach of the Year award. "I guess that's why they hired a rookie."

They were 1-20 the year before he arrived.

In his first year at Frankfort, O'Neil's team equaled that three-year output of six wins, losing 15 games. In his next eight seasons, the Wildcats went 140-47 and O'Neil's teams made three appearances at the state tournament, twice in Class 1A and once in 2A. Twice his teams finished fourth and lost once in the opening round.

Then O'Neil headed to south-central Kansas where his move to Wellington was ever so brief, as his Crusaders went 9-12 and O'Neil felt like it just wasn't a good fit. Wellington had long been a football hotbed, with basketball again being an afterthought in the community and school.

Back in the coaching search, he discovered Scott City, a longtime power in football, having won state gridiron titles in 1988, 1989 and 1991 while finishing as runners-up in 1994. He readied himself for another move, and it is one that has paid off handsomely.

"When you have good athletes being successful in other sports, especially in the smaller schools, you usually see them playing more than one sport," O'Neil said. "It just became a mindset to try and make it where the athletes in Scott City also wanted to play basketball."

Scott City had measured success through the years, having claimed the Class A state title in 1958, been the runner-up in 1960 and 1979. But when O'Neil arrived in Scott City for the start of the 1996-97 season, it had been 18 seasons since the Beavers had made their way to the state tourney.

In his first season with the Beavers, O'Neil took a 14-9 team to the state 4A tourney where they lost to eventual champion Santa Fe Trail in the opening round. From 2000 to 2005, the Beavers advanced to state, finishing fourth in 2000 and suffering opening losses in 2002 and 2005. Twice in those intervening years, the Beavers lost sub-state championship games.

His lone losing season came with an inexperienced roster in 2003-04 (9-12), but the community and school were rewarded in 2006 with the Class 4A state championship in Salina. That was followed by a Class 3A runner-up finish to Wichita Collegiate in 2007. In another transitional period, the Beavers lost two sub-state title games (2009 and 2010).

The teeter-totter moving from Class 4A to 3A and back ended with the 2010-11 school year, and thus began the three-year reign of the Beavers in Class 3A basketball.

"We have appreciated the support of the community," O'Neil said when discussing the large contingent of Beaver fans who made the trek to the Hutchinson Sports Arena to watch the historical "three-peat."

"I think the community realized that for basketball that this is it for this group. These kids have sacrificed and paid the price to win."

O'Neil has seen this exceptional group develop from the time they were in elementary school, moving to middle school and then to high school.

"When kids are small and successful, you just try to keep them playing," O'Neil said. "The physical growth, the different interests of kids, changes who plays and who doesn't through the years. Some take other options. You can hope, you can guess, but you never, never really know how kids are going to do until it's over. I think they had hopes of getting to a championship in one of those years."

O'Neil, who also has served as the Beavers football coach for the past six seasons, saw six basketball players on the gridiron in November when they beat Silver Lake 28-21 for the school's first state championship since 1991.

"They leave with three basketball championships and one in football," coach O'Neil said in reflecting on his group. "A lot of them will be successful in life because of their hard work. They understand accountability and attention to detail. They've set themselves up for life. They know how to be accountable to each other and have been unselfish. They will be a good team player in any company or whatever pursuit they choose in life."

The attention to detail was one of the primary focuses for O'Neil and his staff of Scott Holt and Brian Gentry the week of sub-state. With the big target on their back, O'Neil knew his team needed to fine-tune itself heading into the postseason. So what did he do with a team that was 20-1 at the time?

"We tried to put them into tough situations that no matter how good they were, they didn't do anything right," O'Neil recalled of that grueling week. "We wanted them to deal with controversy in practice because they hadn't had to deal with it in a game, except for the Wichita North (67-63 loss) game. We challenged them mentally that week. It wasn't a physical deal, it was a deal where whatever it was, it wasn't good enough. We asked them how do you make your team better? What is your strength, what is your weakness? What do you do to make other people better? Some didn't really understand what they did. They knew they were part of the team, but didn't realize what their strength was. It was tough on some of them, but I think it got us re-focused and took some pressure off thinking about three in a row."

That mindset came in handy as the Beavers didn't click on all cylinders in a 61-48 workmanlike victory over Pittsburg-St. Mary's Colgan in the opening round a week ago. Then, after falling behind Nemaha Valley in the semifinals by as many as eight points in the first quarter, the Beavers buckled down and gave up only 21 points in the final three quarters after yielding 17 in the opening period. That provided the opportunity for O'Neil's team to go for the three-peat.

"If you look at the history of these guys, the last three years, they generally play well in front of big crowds," coach O'Neil said. "The deeper in the week it is, the better they have played. I was expecting a better effort because of the inconsistencies of the earlier two games. I was kind of expecting that if the emotions didn't get the better of them, that they would go on a quick tear."

His team did just in the championship game against Humboldt. In a game where they never trailed, the Beavers methodically beat up on the Cubs. They clicked on all cylinders, four players scoring in double figures in the first half alone en route to a 44-32 lead. That climbed to as many as 26 points midway through the fourth quarter, resulting in a 74-55 whipping of the Cubs.

"We've got a team that's pretty balanced," O'Neil said of his latest championship group. "It's a nice mixture of players who can shoot the 3-pointer, dribble-drive, spot up guys, the short to mid-range jump shot and getting the ball as deep as you can to the basket. They share the ball really well. The assist to turnovers were on the positive for most of the year."

And another bonus to the recent run of success for the Beavers has been O'Neil being able to coach his two sons — senior Brett and sophomore Trey. Both guards, they were integral components of the last two state titles, with Brett adding his first in 2011 when Trey was an eighth-grader.

"It was special with one, then you get a chance to have the other," O'Neil said. "Then you repeat with them. I'm grateful that they have the skill to help the team, and that I'm not just playing them because they're the coach's kids. Both of them were contributors to our success, just as every other player on the team was. All have paid some price for the success, but I don't believe they'd trade it away."

During the regular season, O'Neil reached a coaching milestone, recording his 300th victory at Scott City and now sports a 306-101 record (.752) with the Beavers. With his previous stints at Frankfort and Wellington, O'Neil has coached 27 seasons, posting a won-loss mark of 465-175 (.727) with the four state titles in the bag.

The senior group, with Brett O'Neil and Drew Kite seeing reserve playing time, went 17-6. Over the past three years, the Beavers have gone 75-3. In the four-year football run, the Beavers were 46-3.

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