There’s not a whole lot of glamour to playing defense in high school soccer.
Defenders can’t boast about how many goals they’ve scored and don’t get nearly as much credit as the goalkeeper when their team shuts out an opponent.
So it might seem puzzling that Nazareth junior Connor O’Neill went to head coach Doug Hunt and asked to be moved from midfielder to center defender. For O’Neill, the position change request made perfect sense.
“This year we only had three returning starters so I knew we would be low at a lot of different spots,” O’Neill said. “We lost all four of our defenders from last year and I thought moving to defense was the best way I could help the team out. I don’t mind not getting the goals. It still feels good when you get shutouts and big wins.”
The Roadrunners had plenty of both this season, including 10 shutouts.
Hunt appreciated that O’Neill stepped forward and volunteered to play defense because his make-up is perfect for the backline.
“He’s such a motivated, hard-driven player and he doesn’t quit,” Hunt said. “The whole defense was seniors so the question was, ‘Where do we start?’ Connor said, ‘I’ll play defense,’ and he and Jack Herbst meshed together so well from the start.”
O’Neill had a big mountain to climb with his move to center defender.
“It was definitely a new position for me,” O’Neill said. “It was a little rough to start out but I had a lot of help from coaches and I think I learned the position pretty quickly. I definitely thought it would be a little easier than it was but I didn’t lose confidence. I’m still learning but I’ve come a long way.”
A good example of the impact that O’Neill had came in the Roadrunners’ season-ending loss to St. Joseph in the St. Joseph Regional championship on Friday.
The Chargers were the No. 1 seed in the sectional and No. 7 Nazareth (11-9) held them without a goal for 100 minutes of regulation and overtime. Unfortunately, Nazareth fell 5-3 in penalty kicks.
“[Herbst and O’Neill] just shut them down,” Hunt said. “They would get the ball going forward and, boom!, one of them is there. It’s been quite a surprise and the nice thing about it is that they’re a sophomore and a junior.”
It wasn’t just one game where O’Neill and Nazareth’s defense shined.
“Without him we wouldn’t have even gotten to the regional championship,” teammate Edin Galvez said. “He’s a great player and he knows how to play any position. He controlled the defense well this year and helped us get shutouts.”
O’Neill now will start to get ready for basketball after playing point guard last year on the sophomore team. During the spring he competes in track and field, where he runs the 1,600 and is part of the 3,200-meter relay team.