Never Give Up!

Author: Jim Schmutz, ASEP Executive Director


Casey O’Neill, assistant athletic director and head coach of lacrosse at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C., gets it. After six years as an assistant, Coach O’Neill took over the program three years ago and brought immediate stability to the program. In his very first parent meeting, he outlined his commitment to the boys on the team (which included my son) and to all the parents. Throughout that first season and to this day, his actions always support his stated objective of building a sustainable program and a culture of family. He clearly articulated how he planned to communicate with his players and with parents.

Throughout that first season he worked with parents to continue some of the off-field team rituals that had been established over the years, like post-game tailgates for the players and families. He also put his own brand on the team by introducing some new elements to further solidify this culture of family, the most notable of which was organizing a program-wide care package drive for troops serving in Iraq. Every freshman, junior varsity, and varsity player organized an individual care package with a personal letter. Coach O’Neill involved parents to coordinate the packing and shipping. This has now become an annual tradition.

On the field he introduced a team motto: “Never give up.” The players embraced the mantra and, while that season ended in another disappointing conference tournament loss to arch rival DeMatha, the season was a success on so many levels for this young first-year coach, beyond their 16-5 record. Coach established his philosophy and earned the confidence of players and parents who eagerly anticipated the 2009 season.

By all accounts, 2009 was disappointing on the field as the team struggled throughout and finished under .500. But Coach O’Neill persevered with the “Never give up” philosophy and did everything he could to keep the team culture of family at the forefront. The team (made up of several veteran seniors who had started on the varsity team since their 2008 sophomore season and some experienced juniors and sophomores and a talented freshman class) entered the 2010 season with high hopes.

Gonzaga plays in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference (WCAC) and had not won a conference championship since 1998. Equally disappointing, they had not beaten DeMatha over that same 12-season span. In addition to playing in the WCAC, Gonzaga traditionally plays a tough non-conference schedule that includes D.C. lacrosse powerhouses Georgetown Prep and Landon, as well as teams from Annapolis and Baltimore. Eager to make a statement, Gonzaga opened its 2010 season with Georgetown Prep and proceeded to lose 14-2. After working so hard in fall ball, at early-morning winter fitness and conditioning sessions, and during an intense pre-season, this was a discouraging loss. Coach’s response? “Never give up.”

After the Georgetown loss, Gonzaga reeled off four consecutive wins and then suffered a tough overtime loss. They then won five more in a row before they faced DeMatha in a regular-season clash on April 13. Final score: Gonzaga 12, DeMatha 8; the Eagles had ended 12 years of frustration.

In addition to winning the rest of its regular-season conference games to finish undefeated in conference play, Gonzaga had one remaining non-conference game against Landon, which has dominated this series over the years. Gonzaga overcame a 4-0 deficit to win this game 7-6 on Landon’s home field. They never gave up.

Gonzaga made its way to the championship game of the conference tournament after holding on for a 10-9 semifinal win in which they led 7-2 at the half and 10-5 in the fourth quarter. On May 7, Gonzaga faced DeMatha for the conference championship. Dematha came out fired up, focused on avenging the regular-season loss. They outshot Gonzaga 23-15 to take a 6-2 lead after two quarters. The fourth quarter started with DeMatha holding a seemingly insurmountable 8-3 lead. With 39 seconds left in regulation, Gonzaga completed their “Never give up” storybook comeback with their fifth unanswered goal to tie it up at 8-8 and send the game into overtime. With 1:39 left in overtime, Gonzaga cemented their place in D.C. lacrosse lore with the winning goal, and the WCAC championship was theirs. Coach O’Neill summed up his emotional reaction to the moment with a few simple but telling words: “Wow! That was special!”

When I asked him what he said to the boys before taking the field in the fourth quarter, he replied, "We used ’Never give up’ and finished with ’Make them remember you’ because the previous three quarters is not how you want to be remembered. Give the crowd a reason to explode!"

Gonzaga practiced at least two hours a day for 48 days and compiled a 19-2 record during that breakthrough season. For the players, the combination of practice and game time adds up to 6,798 minutes. Add 12,960 minutes dedicated to varsity practice and game preparation resulting in a total 19,758 in-season minutes per coach (329.3 hours) logged for this team. Coach O’Neill also works closely to coordinate the efforts of the freshman and junior varsity team coaches so that systems are integrated in a way that allows a smooth transition for future varsity team members. Add coordinating Senior Day festivities, and the post-season team banquet, and the season demands seem endless.

Then consider those time-consuming demands that require year-round attention. Coach O’Neill addresses parent and player concerns daily. Inevitably there will be kids in trouble requiring disciplinary action, which sometimes includes involving other school administrators. Coaches help players with their pursuit of college whether they plan to continue playing or not. Add considerable time for those who do want to continue to play in college. Coach O’Neill runs summer camps and engages in community outreach efforts through clinics and interaction with administrative volunteers to help area youth programs develop.

While Coach O’Neill is intrinsically skillful, intelligent, organized, insightful, passionate, and dedicated, he is also committed to getting better every day. His role as an assistant coach for six years provided what amounted to a lab experience with a unique perspective that shaped his current philosophy. He seeks feedback from local Division l college coaches, occasionally observing their practices; he also interacts with peer high school coaches all in an effort to expand his coaching IQ.

At its core, the accelerated success of Gonzaga lacrosse under the leadership of Coach O’Neill results from his focus on athletes first. Everything he does starts with what’s best for the players on his team. Winning is a byproduct of his preparation, his ability to prepare his team, and their collective commitment to get better every day. He works hard to relate to each player’s unique character traits, intelligence, experience, and physical abilities. In three years he has established a culture of family, a culture of mutual respect, and a commitment to never giving up.