CHICAGO — Kelsey O’Neill received the set and slammed down the ball so hard and so fast that Mother McAuley’s defense had zero chance to return it.
O’Neill’s kill occurred during the first game of Loyola’s 25-15, 25-11 loss to the Mighty Macs on Oct. 1. It was exactly the result Loyola coach Mark Chang has been looking for from the 6-foot-2 senior middle hitter.
“She really has developed power in her attack,” the second-year coach said.
“She’s even better tactically, locating vulnerable spots when sending the ball over. She is getting the best out of almost every offensive opportunity she gets.”
O’Neill, who has verbally committed to Pittsburgh, is the team leader in kills in her second season on varsity. That’s a long way away from when she was an awkward freshman on the B team.
“I wasn’t very good,” said O’Neill, who first started playing volleyball in eighth grade. “I hadn’t grown into my body, and I was a bit of an awkward child. I couldn’t hit or block, but I have worked on every aspect of my game since that point.”
O’Neill said her time with Northwestern-based Wildcat Juniors played a big role in her development. She’s been with the club since sophomore year.
“I don’t think I became serious about the sport until I started with the Wildcat Juniors,” said O’Neill, who lives in Skokie. “But I went into those tryouts not thinking I would make the team. It was not something I was counting on, but I made it. When I did, I dropped everything else and focused on volleyball.”
In July, O’Neill played at the USA High Performance Championships in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. She participated in training and evaluation sessions and then competed against other top junior programs from around the world. It was the second year in a row she was involved with USA Volleyball.
Chang has noticed improvements in O’Neill’s footwork, hitting accuracy and blocking throughout her high school career.
“She’s basically cleaned up the fundamentals,” he said. “She’s also a team leader, a vocal team leader. She has a greater all-around presence on the court.”
O’Neill said colleges started sending her letters around this time last year.
She picked Pitt in April and remains firm in her decision. She said she plans to sign with the Panthers next month.