The black-and-white video and repetitive yarns are all too familiar.
Katie O’Neill knows full well what her father, Hugh, accomplished during a professional soccer career that spanned eight years and two countries.
The one story the senior forward on the Charlotte women’s soccer team always remembers hearing is about how in 1981, Hugh etched his name in Charlotte soccer history, scoring the winning goal for the Carolina Lightnin’ in a 2-1 double-overtime win in the American Soccer League championship game.
The game was played at Memorial Stadium, in front of what was then a league-record crowd of 20,163 fans.
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“I just remember it was kind of like a larger crowd than you’d expect, especially for the time period,” said O’Neill, who has watched the highlight of her father’s goal on multiple occasions. “At the time, it was pretty important for them.”
Last week, though, Hugh’s stories started taking a backseat after Katie made the decisive penalty kick against Western Kentucky and the 49ers advanced to the Conference USA tournament semifinals in a shootout.
Katie’s big moment took time to develop.
‘An extra 10 percent’
She set the ball down and took eight steps back, no sense of hesitancy or panic present.
Several yards away, 49ers coach John Cullen looked on, his confidence in her unwavering as she prepared for her penalty kick. This, after all, was how it should be. He knew O’Neill should be taking this shot.
A little less than two years before, Cullen received a call from O’Neill, a star at Binghamton (N.Y.), who was looking to transfer closer to her family in Charlotte. She also wanted to join a program where she believed she could win a championship.
Her attitude and soccer background translated across the phone. Cullen liked what he heard.
“I felt like any time you can get a transfer, they generally come in with a hunger and a renewed energy,” he said. “We needed something fresh in the group, something from the outside that could maybe give us an extra 10 percent.”
O’Neill’s first season with the program fell short of expectations though.
The 49ers not only failed to break their drought of six straight seasons without a trip to the NCAA tournament, they also missed out on the Conference USA tournament, finishing 11th overall with a 7-11-1 mark.
Then, in August, on the team’s preseason trip to the British Isles, O’Neill sustained an ankle injury when she found herself on the wrong end of a hefty challenge. The diagnosis wasn’t promising. Her season was in limbo.
She remained determined, however. With the discipline her father instilled in her when they practiced together throughout her childhood, O’Neill attacked her recovery and ultimately missed just five games.
Upon her return to the lineup, Cullen noticed a sense of caution from the forward he considers to be a superb striker of the ball. However, he no longer saw that tentativeness when she lined up for her penalty kick.
“I never had any hesitation she was going to miss it,” he said.
A kick worth the wait
O’Neill stopped, just for a second, and stared down the keeper. Nearly five years had passed since she last found herself in such a situation.
Playing for the Soccer Domain Football Club as a junior in high school, she and her teammates reached the club state semifinals, only to lose in penalty kicks. O’Neill missed then.
Her family, specifically her father, comforted her in the aftermath of the crushing defeat. They encouraged her to go on.
“From that point on, it was really a thing to emphasize and practice,” she said. “Because after you miss one, you’re basically mentally messed up for a long time.”
Throughout her college summers, she added extra time to her practice sessions to work on penalty kicks. Sometimes, Hugh pretended to be the goalie and advised her on where to place the ball to ensure it couldn’t be saved, no matter the situation or who the keeper was.
When the time arrived, she wouldn’t miss again.
Until last Wednesday, O’Neill hadn’t taken another penalty kick during a game. Even as the game unfolded and the pressure mounted, she didn’t realize she could clinch the win if her shot found the back of the net.
Instead, she reflected on her father’s advice. She wanted to make him – and the rest of her family – proud.
She sprinted toward the ball as soon as the whistle blew. With the swing of her right foot, she knocked it into the bottom left corner of the net, under the outstretched arms of the diving goalkeeper, to secure the win and extend the 49ers’ season at least one more game.
Four days later, during the C-USA championship game, O’Neill scored the second goal in Charlotte’s 4-0 win against Florida Atlantic at Transamerica Field.
Like her father’s before her, Katie’s moment had arrived.
“For Katie and I, we’ll always have a special bond as father and daughter,” Hugh said. “But now we have something in common – that we both scored in a final in Charlotte. And that makes her and I very happy.”
‘A cool thing to look back on’
With the women’s soccer team earning a trip to the NCAA tournament, the buzz around Charlotte’s campus has only grown since Sunday.
O’Neill, who was named most outstanding offensive player of the conference tournament, has noticed the effects of the team’s accomplishments, receiving congratulatory emails from professors and advisers whom she previously assumed didn’t know her.
A random stranger even complemented O’Neill and her team on their achievements when she went to vote Tuesday.
She knows all of this could end soon, however. A road game against Duke, the national runner-up a season ago, awaits the 49ers at 1 p.m. Saturday. With the next loss, whenever it might be, O’Neill’s soccer career will end.
No matter when that day comes, she can already match her father’s success stories with one of her own.
“I think it will definitely be special just because if we hadn’t won that game in penalty kicks, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” she said. “I think it’s important and it will be a cool thing to look back on in my career.”