It was hard to tell from her first high-school game just how good Jennifer O’Neill was going to be.
Her coach at St. Michael Academy, Apache Paschall, recalls that performance vividly. It was two years ago against Trenton Catholic and he was stuck in traffic getting to the gym. When Paschall got there in the third quarter, star guards Anjale Barrett (now at Maryland) and Tasha Harris (Syracuse) were in foul trouble and assistant Ron Kelley, who had taken over coaching duties, inserted O’Neill in the lineup.
On the next possession, O’Neill got the ball in the corner and attempted a 3-pointer, which banged off the back of the backboard, ricocheted off the bleachers and sailed right on out of the gym into a janitor’s closet.
“The ref had to go back there and find it,” Paschall said with a laugh.
O’Neill then had three straight turnovers and Paschall had seen enough.
“I said, ‘Ron, she’s scared to death, man. Please take her out of the game,’” the coach said.
That might as well have been a millennium ago. There isn’t much, if anything, that O’Neill fears now. The Bronx native is St. Michael Academy’s 5-foot-6 star guard with interest from a ton of Division I schools like Georgia, California, Illinois, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Syracuse. O’Neill, who also plays for Paschall’s AAU program, Exodus, has become one of the best players in New York City and one of the top juniors in the country.
This weekend, she’ll be trying to help lead the Eagles to their first-ever New York State Federation Class AA championship in Glens Falls.
“Words can’t describe how excited I am,” O’Neill said. … “I’m happy we’re the first group to this.”
It’s not all about O’Neill when St. Mike’s meets public-school state champion Copiague (L.I.) on Saturday at Glens Falls Civic Center in the semifinals with a potential date with two-time defending Federation champion Murry Bergtraum looming Sunday. And she knows that. But O’Neill has stepped up her game when the Eagles have needed it most this season.
She had 18 points in the CHSAA Class AA state tournament quarterfinals win against Christ the King, including a pair of 3-pointers in the first quarter when St. Mike’s was struggling scoring the ball. O’Neill also had 22 points against St. Peter’s in the CHSAA state championship game that clinched St. Mike’s a berth upstate.
“She’s real,” SMA sophomore forward Tiffany Jones said. “She’s a problem. I think nobody can stop her.”
O’Neill wouldn’t necessarily agree – she’s too humble for that. She had a modest upbringing in the Bronx with her mother, Maritza Robles, now a retired firefighter. It was a male-dominated job and O’Neill draws inspiration from her mom.
She also gets her focus from Jerry Powell, the renowned trainer from Long Island. O’Neill splits her time between the Bronx and Powell’s house in Lindenhurst.
“He’s a big part of my life,” O’Neill said of Powell, her trainer whom she met through Paschall. “He’s like a father figure to me. … He didn’t even know me and he was willing to take me in.”
She even calls him “my dad.” Harris, who graduated two years ago from St. Mike’s, grew up not far from O’Neill in the Bronx and also lived part of the time with Powell to get out of the inner city and focus on basketball.
“He’s the best out there,” O’Neill said. “I don’t care what anybody says. He built my confidence. He made me think I was able to do anything.”
That little girl who was scared to death is long gone. Powell, Paschall, Kelley and Lauren Best, a coach with SMA and Exodus, have had a profound impact on her. Rock Rosa of New Heights recommended her to Paschall the summer after her eighth-grade season.
“After a few workouts I realized that she had a certain toughness that was unmatched,” Rosa said.
Paschall took her on the road with his young team without seeing her play prior. That summer she developed a bit of a reputation.
“I kid you not, this kid just got the ball and shot it every time she touched it,” Paschall said.
South Shore head man Anwar Gladden, who coached with Exodus at the time, started calling her John Starks after the 3-point happy former Knicks guard.
“I remember when she was an eighth grader, she couldn’t hit a jump shot,” said St. Mike’s senior Janine Davis, who calls O’Neill her best friend. “Now her jump shot is fire.”
O’Neill was supposed to go to Aquinas HS, which was near her Bronx home, but after bonding with the St. Mike’s players over the summer, she begged Paschall to let her come to his Manhattan school. Of course, at the time Barrett and Harris were the stars of the show and there wasn’t much room for O’Neill.
“You have to be a point guard,” Paschall said he told her. “You’re never gonna play. She said, ‘I don’t care.’”
And O’Neill rode the bench almost her entire freshman season – with that one exception against Trenton Catholic. Paschall still shakes his head when he thinks about that game. When O’Neill came to St. Michael’s, he promised her that, barring injury, he would get her into college for free. That commitment popped into his head as the ball was rolling around in the janitor’s closet.
“I was thinking that I was gonna have to find a small, Division II school in Puerto Rico, because she’s Spanish,” Paschall said with a laugh.
But now O’Neill can punch her ticket just about anywhere she wants.