Freedom New Mexico: Mickey Winfield Eastern New Mexico University sophomore Vanessa O’Neal, left, gets into position to grab a rebound during the Zias’ practice Friday afternoon. O’Neal was a member of the 30-0 state champion Clovis girls basketball team in 2005.
By Mickey Winfield: Freedom New Mexico
A jack of all trades and a master of none.
The well-known phrase may apply to any number of people — including an athletically gifted Eastern New Mexico University women’s basketball sophomore who rarely shows up in the headlines, but is considered crucial to her team’s success by her coaches.
Vanessa O’Neal was a two-sport athlete at Clovis High School, contributing to four state tournament appearances for the Lady Wildcat basketball team, including an undefeated 30-0 state championship in 2005.
She also helped the Clovis girls track team win a state championship in her senior year, running in the 400 meters, 400 medley and the 1,600 relays.
“Vanessa is just a real hard worker,” said former Clovis girls basketball coach Miles Watters. “Everything she has is because she has worked really hard at it.
For the past two seasons, O’Neal takes her shots on the hard court at ENMU, just down the road from home, and third-year Zia coach Linden Weese believes he has a group of individuals who buy into the team concept — including O’Neal.
“I think they’re smart enough to know that not anyone of them could go win a ballgame by themselves,” Weese said. “(Vanessa) brings so much energy to us, she’ll get out and go on the fastbreak and go attack people on the other end … and that’s causing our shooters to get some pretty good looks.”
After starting only one game last season, her first at ENMU, the Clovis native has started 10 games this season, averaging just over six points per game, and shooting 43 percent from the field. She ranks third on the team with a free throw percentage of 75.5 percent, but the 5-foot-5 guard’s contributions also include offensive boards, assists and steals — she ranks second on the team in each category.
“I’ve always known my role,” O’Neal said. “In high school, it was always defense (for me) and it was never really about getting points. Whatever I could do to help the team win — even when I ran track in high school, I was never No. 1 but I always tried to be inspirational and do what I could to help the team win.”
Weese said O’Neal put in so much work during the offseason that she’s almost a completely different player.
“I don’t think there’s any question that Vanessa’s role has changed,” Weese said. “Last year she was a lock-down defender for us and now she’s a huge part of our offense.”
To illustrate, Weese talked about the Zias’ game at Abilene Christian earlier this month, and said once O’Neal got into foul trouble and had to come out of the game, the offense wasn’t “near as good without her.”
“That’s when we struggled scoring,” Weese said. “We get her back in and we got the looks that we got before. I think our kids are really starting to understand just how valuable she is to us.”
O’Neal has been surging as of late. She posted career highs in points (17) and rebounds (12) in achieving her first career double-double in the Zias’ 86-71 loss Jan. 10 at Texas Woman’s and followed that performance with a team-high seven rebounds three days later at Abilene Christian.
Despite her improvement on the offensive side of the floor — it’s not her true love on the court.
“I love defense,” O’Neal said. “That’s always been a part of my game ever since high school. I’m fast, and I like to take advantage of that on offense and defense.”
Someday, the ENMU sophomore wants to run her own business, perhaps a “restaurant or a barber shop,” but she also recognizes that she might be a good coach.
“Sports put me in the right direction and gave me the opportunity to come to school,” O’Neal said. “I’m really taking my athletic ability to get somewhere in life.”