Serendipity leads SJV grad to Brookdale volleyball team

By Rich Fisher | Contributing Editor

ACE • St. John Vianney graduate Katie O’Neill is making a name for herself on the Brookdale Community College volleyball team. John Blaine photo

In the midst of a rebuilding season for the Brookdale Community College volleyball team, a star is emerging in freshman Katie O’Neill.

The Jersey Blues are just 1-6, but the 2018 St. John Vianney High School graduate is carving out an impressive campaign at outside hitter.

Entering the Sept. 19 match with Fashion Institute of Technology, O’Neill was one of just three Blues to play in all 20 sets. She led Brookdale in points scored (53.5), points per set (2.7), kills (34), kills per set (1.7), total attempts (101), service aces (18) and service aces per set (0.90). She is second in digs (51).

“I never take her out,” said Poline Mackiewicz, coach at the Lincroft college. “It’s fair to say she’s one of my best players at this time, and my best outside hitter. She’s very hard on herself. I put her at a floor captain and that helped a lot, it worked out very well. She is great. I like her demeanor, her respect. She’s very pleasant, very committed.”

Like any competitive player, O’Neill wants to win. She has enjoyed the experience and regards her new teammates (none of who she knew before college) as her second family. But when it comes to performance, she feels things need to get better in her play and the team’s.

“We haven’t been winning much,” she said, “and although I do lead in some statistics, I always look to improve myself and my skills. I hope in the future to limit my mistakes and work on bettering the ball and just making smarter plays all around.”

The Old Bridge resident was a relative latecomer to volleyball, starting the sport her freshman year at the Holmdel school. She gained interest while in middle school when the 8th-graders would play games against the teachers.

After two years on the JV team, O’Neill was promoted to varsity at St. John Vianney. She started as an outside hitter as a freshman but was used as a setter during her sophomore year because the coach wanted to try different options.

“Even then I knew I wanted to be hitting the ball instead of setting it,” O’Neill said. “The feeling that comes from getting a kill is empowering, so I knew the setting position just wasn’t for me. I think my best advice for outside hitters is making sure your skills are balanced. You need to be able to pass and hit, which means you need a lot of control. It’s not always about banging the ball, but putting it in the best spot at the right speed on the court.”

She did that with a flair as a senior, recording 16 service aces, 95 kills and 103 digs. She had fallen in love with the sport, having also played with the Warren Sixpack and Garden State Attack club teams, along with the Great American Volleyball Elite beach team.

As a member of St. Ambrose Parish in Old Bridge, O’Neill was happy to join her Lancer teammates in prayer before each game.

“We would say ‘St. John Vianney, pray for us,’ because he was the patron saint of protection,” Katie said. “I never look to God for the outcome of a game but to keep me and my team safe.”

Her prayers were answered with an injury-free senior season. Having already decided to enroll at Brookdale after high school graduation, O’Neill planned on trying out for the volleyball team; little did she know that behind the scenes an opportunity was already being created for her.

Mackiewicz, a native of Sao Paulo, Brazil, was a standout player whose hopes of making the Brazilian National Team were curtailed by a severe ankle injury. Upon arriving in New Jersey, she had assistant coaching stints at JP Stevens and New Jersey Institute of Technology. She was also played and coached club volleyball and gained numerous connections.

Upon taking over Brookdale last year, Mackiewicz had little time to recruit in-season, but knew she needed players quickly. Recalling that a former club teammate, Brian Gadaleta, coached at SJV with his wife, Jessica, she sent him a text asking if he had any players with collegiate potential.

“He told me, ‘As a matter of fact, my best outside hitter is coming to Brookdale,” Mackiewicz recalled. “He gave me her contact information and I called her. As it turned out, I did see her prior to Brookdale. I didn’t coach her, but coached a younger team for the Warren Sixpack and saw her as a player, so I kind of knew what she was about.”

Imagine O’Neill’s surprise when Gadaleta approached O’Neill in the middle of practice to inform her Mackiewicz called him looking for an outside hitter.

Serendipity at its finest.

“She’s an all-around player,” Mackiewicz said. “Her serves are very strong, she’s very crafty when she hits, which is very important to us. She’s a complete player.”

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