By BRETT MARSHALL
When the Scott City Beavers walked off the Hutchinson Sports Arena floor in mid-March of 2013 in possession of their third consecutive Class 3A state boys basketball championship, Trey O'Neil knew that the following season would bring an entirely new experience for him and his teammates.
That's because O'Neil, a 6-2 junior-to-be, would be the lone returning starter off a team that had produced a 75-3 record in the three previous seasons, of which he had been a supporting cast member on two of those.
O'Neil took his leadership role to heart in the off-season, and his play during the just-completed season in which the surprising Beavers made a repeat appearance in the state championship game, this time in Class 4A-Division II (a 71-58 loss to Eudora), earning him The Telegram's All-Area Boys Player of the Year honor.
"To be honest, I'm just happy how we ended the season even though we didn't win state," said O'Neil, who averaged 21 points, 5.7 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 2.2 steals for a team that finished 21-4. "We improved every day and I thought we overcame a lot of adversity with the losses we did have."
The youthful Beavers didn't have to wait long to absorb a loss, falling in their season opener to Colorado's Class 4A-ranked Pueblo East (69-51) in the Southwest Classic. But the team responded with two victories over Wichita Trinity and Denver South to regain some of its moxie.
That set in motion a 13-game winning streak for coach Glenn O'Neil (Trey's father) and the Beavers.
But the younger O'Neil and his teammates were ambushed at Goodland in a 46-42 loss to the Cowboys, the third game in four days for the Beavers, including a weather-rescheduled win over Hugoton the night before crashing at Goodland. Two mediocre wins over TMP-Marian and Great Bend was a prelude to a 66-57 loss to rival Holcomb on the road.
There, the season took a turn for the Beavers.
"The losses were upsetting, especially the one to Holcomb," Trey said. "It wasn't just that it was Holcomb, it was the way we were playing. Losing is not an option."
O'Neil said he gathered his teammates for a player-only meeting the day after losing at Holcomb.
"I told everyone that we needed to play better for the community, and that losing was not an option," Trey said. "None of us had played good."
With so many new faces on the roster, including four new starters, O'Neil had to ratchet up his scoring, and he responded by nearly doubling his average from his sophomore season, when he hit for 10.7 points per game.
"Early on, I kinda had to change and become more of a scorer, and then that adjusted as the season went along," Trey said. "When they (teammates) had trouble, I just always tried to ask myself, 'What do I need to do to help us win?' The great part about my teammates is that they are open to learning."
Moving from a shooting guard to point guard was also a transition that Trey had to make, and following in the footsteps of his graduated brother, Brett (a three-year starter) was part of that puzzle.
"Brett and I are two different types of players," Trey said. "He's more of a driver of the ball and passing off, while I've been more of a shooter, scorer. I express my opinion more while Brett just did what Dad (coach O'Neil) told him to do. But it's cool to play for him. I'm always wanting to get out and go, and sometimes he (coach) just wants to get in our half-court offense."
Playing point guard also required the younger O'Neil to become more of a vocal leader for the Beavers, something that had been his older brother's role before.
"I just had to be more vocal with my teammates, helping them on offense and defense to know what we were running. Telling people where to be isn't always the easiest, but I knew I just needed to get my voice more into the game. If I needed to be the go-to guy for baskets, or needed a defensive stop, I tried to do what the team needed most."
O'Neil's junior year was a model of consistency as he scored in double figures in all 25 games. His season low was 10, and he saved his best for the state semifinals, when he had a career-high 31 points (including 8-of-15 3-pointers) to help the Beavers to a dramatic 77-75 overtime win to reach the title game. He recorded four double-doubles in points/rebounds and also had season highs of nine assists on three occasions, five steals (twice) and finished with a 2.09/1.0 assist-to-turnover ratio. His rebounding average more than doubled, increasing from 2.5 to 5.7, and his assists nearly doubled (2.8 to 5.3).
The younger O'Neil said he was looking forward to the 2014-15 season in which the Beavers return three starters and two top reserves.
"I'm really excited for what we have coming back," Trey said. "We definitely want to get back to state, but we want to win it again."
He said that his biggest area of improvement came in balancing his all-around game.
"Passing the ball definitely improved and I've always been a driver to the basket," Trey said. "I needed to work on my pull-up shot if defenses were going to collapse on me. If the shot wasn't there, I think I improved on dishing it off."
In his three varsity seasons, the younger O'Neil has now scored 954 career points. He totaled 173 points (6.7 points) as a freshman, 257 points (10.7 points) as a sophomore and added 524 points (21.0) this season. With school records only going back to the mid-1980s, Trey has a chance to move up on the scoring chart.