St. Anthony’s (N.Y.) junior attackman Brennan O’Neill is in an unusual position. According to coach Keith Wieczorek, people are actively rooting for him to fail.
Since his seventh-grade season, O’Neill has been the focal point on the field. He led Long Island in points as an eighth-grader. He closed this past season with a spectacular seven-goal effort in a 14-13 win over rival Chaminade (N.Y.) in the CHSAA (Long Island/state) championship game. And now, he’s one of the most heralded and hyped recruits in prep lacrosse history.
O’Neill’s ability to shake off the pressure and rise to the occasion on the biggest stage made him the no-doubt choice for the Warrior/US Lacrosse High School Boys’ National Player of the Year.
“Unfortunately for him, he’s been receiving so much recognition and hype since he was in seventh or eighth grade, I think he enters every game with all eyes on him, both in the stands and on the field,” Wieczorek said of O’Neill, who is also the Warrior/US Lacrosse High School Boys’ Northeast Player of the Year. “I think it’s a burden he carries very easily, because he doesn’t let it get to him. It’s also difficult because every time he goes to the cage and he gets a shot off, or he slips, or he loses the ball, the place erupts. And I’m thinking, ‘This poor kid, every time he touches the ball, everyone expects him to do something spectacular.’ Yet it doesn’t faze him. He stays grounded, he stays unselfish.
“He’s the consummate team player. He never worries about his own stats. They just come honestly to him. He’s a tireless worker. He’s always working at his craft. He’s driven to be the best. His humility is what sets him apart from your normal superstars. He’s under a microscope, and he doesn’t let it affect him.”
But O’Neill, who garnered national headlines when he committed to Penn State in the eighth grade (he’s now committed to Duke), takes it all in stride. He’s self-motivated, Wieczorek said. O’Neill comes up biggest when it matters most. Wieczorek said the star attackman has an innate calm which allows him to thrive under obscene pressure.
As ESPN analyst Paul Carcaterra noted in a March profile of O’Neill in US Lacrosse Magazine, the kid is special.
“You could put him on a field with professional players or play at the international level and he would score three or four goals in a game right now as a 16-year-old,” Carcaterra said. “He’s that good. When I watch Mikey Powell or Lyle Thompson or Brennan O’Neill play the game, there’s nothing traditional about their game. They’ve mastered the fundamentals, but their flair for the dramatic and ability to improv and make plays out of nothing is what separates them.”
But according to O’Neill, who is now 17, he isn’t dealing with pressure, because he’s most worried about making himself better. O’Neill helped St. Anthony’s beat teams from eight different states in 2019.
“This feels good, but I try not to think about it too much, so it doesn’t get to my head,” O’Neill said. “I’ll always have a target on my back, no matter what. I’ll always have to keep working, or else people will catch up and I won’t be where I’m at.”
The 6-foot-2, 220-pound athlete is a bit of a physical marvel, and he still has a year of high school lacrosse left. He is big, explosive and skilled, Wieczorek said. His acrobatic goals have gone viral on social media multiple times.
— ILPreps (@ILPreps) May 16, 2019
O’Neill is the type of talent who doesn’t come around very often. In his 20 years at St. Anthony’s, one of the preeminent programs in the country, Wieczorek said only a small handful of players measure up to O’Neill.
Tom Schreiber, the former standout at Princeton and current standout outdoors in the Premier Lacrosse League and indoors with the National Lacrosse League, is the last player who garnered this much attention, according to Wieczorek.
Both players have U.S. team ties. Schreiber, of course, scored the last-second goal to lift Team USA to a world championship win over Canada last summer in Israel. O’Neill was one of 50 players who recently advanced to the second round of tryouts for the 2020 U.S. U19 team.
“Tom Schreiber is probably the best player in the world,” Wieczorek said. “I think Brennan has the size. Tom didn’t have that size. Tom’s skill and shooting and quick release and team concept and unselfish play, those are very, very similar to Brennan. Arguably the best two players we’ve had in our program are very unselfish. Brennan is just so damn big and strong. It’s the intangible Tom didn’t have.”
NATIONAL PLAYER OF THE YEAR
School: St. Anthony’s (N.Y.)
Stats: 56 goals, 16 assists
Coach Keith Wieczorek: “It’s his skill level and his hard work. This didn’t happen by accident. He’s gifted physically, but what he’s done to hone his craft, his skill level, it’s because of hard work and everything he does after practice.”
When asked to assess O’Neill’s game, Wieczorek resolutely offered that there aren’t many weaknesses.
“He’s the multi-headed beast,” he said. “He can power dodge. With his size, people, especially if they haven’t seen him before, are unaware of his quickness and speed. If you try to body him, he can run by you. If you want to give him room, he can excel. He can do whatever you’re giving him. He can use his speed or his size. I think it’s a combination of both that make him nearly impossible to shut down.”
Wieczorek paused for a second and then continued the O’Neill scouting report.
“You can cover him and force some looks, but he’s a prolific finisher with his left hand, in particular. He doesn’t need a lot of room. He’s got a very quick release. He does stuff with one hand, when you’re least expecting him to shoot. He shoots from different angles. He’s a magician with the stick.”
O’Neill is a bit more succinct in his appraisal.
“I have a unique style of play that’s unpredictable,” he said. “My first step is good. I am pretty explosive, and I get out of my cuts quick. My right hand is also developing, too. That’s becoming a reliable source.”
The scary part for opponents is that St. Anthony’s only loses four impact seniors and returns everyone else. O’Neill’s massive performance against Chaminade and overtime winner against Haverford School (Pa.) stand as his signature moments this season.
But O’Neill recognizes when he needs to involve his teammates more. If defenses keyed on him exclusively, Wieczorek said O’Neill helped others find the cage. Senior Jake Bonomi (55 goals, 13 assists) was one of the opportunistic scorers who surrounded O’Neill.
Wieczorek said for those who know him, O’Neill is hard not to like.
O’Neill approaches it all with a wisdom beyond his years. He’s unflappable.
“Obviously, I know a lot of people want to get a piece of me,” O’Neill said. “But I know that I always have to bring my best and work my hardest. I know that when people cheer against me, it’s for a reason and I shouldn’t think about it too much, or it’ll get to my head. I don’t let people bring me down. If I miss a shot, I just think about the next play and how I’m going to get back.”
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