O’Neal works through injuries
Patrick O’Neal, like so many other eighth-grade athletes, had high hopes for his upcoming high school career.
No doubt when the San Jose born and Grass Valley bred O’Neal daydreamed in the classrooms of Magnolia Intermediate School, he saw a Bear River lettermen’s jacket crammed with the spoils of four seasons of wrestling and football.
The sports gods had other ideas.
O’Neal’s first setback came on the gridiron.
A partially torn tendon in his shoulder cut his freshmen football playing days short. Surgeons patched him back together, but it didn’t last.
He joined the wrestling team that winter, but his shoulder wouldn’t cooperate. This time, he tore the tendon completely from the bone.
That one cost him two years on the sideline.
His luck changed for the better last season. O’Neal, 17, was at full strength and made the most of it on the wrestling mat.
The then-189-pound junior, who wasn’t on the prep wrestling radar screen at the start of the season, rolled through the regular season and fought his way through illness to qualify for a spot in the Sac-Joaquin Section finals.
“I had the flu at the subsections, and the first day I wrestled really bad. I won, but it was real close. The second day I felt quite a bit better, and I did better,” he said. “When I made it to the semis, and I knew I was going to the section finals, I was just kinda content with that.”
O’Neal was winless in the finals, but he, and everyone else, knew he was back.
This season, O’Neal made the move up to the 215-pound weight class and it has paid dividends. He’s 17-6 overall, 6-1 in the Sierra Foothill League and will likely be the top seed in the SFL tournament Friday at Granite Bay.
“I’m 200 pounds, but I’m big enough to where I can compete at 215. The bigger guys are stronger than me, but I think I hold my own,” he said. “It’s different because I’m used to wrestling guys who rely on their technique. A lot of the bigger guys really like to go upper body with you. I’m finally starting to adjust to that.”
Bear River’s first-year head coach and former two-time California Interscholastic Federation state champion Josh Holiday said O’Neal got to where he is thanks to countless hours of sweat in the both weight and wrestling rooms.
“He’s got great fundamentals. That’s rare for a guy that size,” Holiday said. “He’s one of the hardest-working guys on the floor. Again, that’s rare because big guys tend to take breaks and slack off.”
O’Neal pointed the finger right back at Holiday.
“I think Holiday is the best thing that could ever happen to this team and for me personally, because he has so much to offer,” O’Neal said. “He’s probably the best technical wrestler I’ve ever known. He’s shown stuff that has made me improve so much. I think he’s given me everything I need to take it to the next level.”
O’Neal also credits Holiday with honing his mental game.
“He’s put mental toughness at the top (of the list). You can be just as tired as the other guy, but if you’re more mentally tough, you’re going to break him and you’re going to pin him,” O’Neal said.
“So whenever I get to the point where I feel I can’t go on any further, I think (about what he’s taught). I think, ‘I can beat this guy. I’m a champion. I’ve trained hard enough, and I know I can win.'”
From that mental toughness, O’Neal’s has taken a different approach to losing.
“I know (now) that it doesn’t matter if I lost a match earlier in the season. It sucks to lose, but all that happens from that is I learn something. So if I go into the postseason winning only two matches, but I win the rest of the way, it doesn’t matter what my regular season record was. That’s the way I have looked at it this season,” O’Neal added.
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The Little League District 11 postseason is off to a hot start.