When Grace O’Neil became head coach at Essex High School, she joked that she did so with one lofty goal in mind: outlast her father’s tenure. Then she thought about what that meant.
“Oh, god,” she said after a practice last week. “That means I have 50 more years.”
As the daughter of the longtime, beloved coach Bill O’Neil – who two years ago ended his 44-year coaching career at Essex High School with 24 state championships and nearly 1,300 wins – O’Neil is heir to one of Essex’s most storied sports families, a legacy that has followed her around since the days of wandering high school friends as a toddler.
Entering her second year as coach of the girls varsity lacrosse team, O’Neil’s namesake remains an inextricable part of her budding coaching career, a fact she has taken in stride. “It can be intimidating,” she said after a practice last week. “But it’s something to inspire to recreate – in my own way.”
O’Neil graduated from Essex High School in 2010 and attended St. Lawrence University, where she played field hockey and earned her teaching degree. She eventually ended up back at EHS to teach science, and after joining the varsity squad as an assistant coach several years ago, took over the reins last year.
Like many players-turned-coaches, O’Neil’s transition from taking the field to patrolling the sidelines wasn’t always easy. Early on, she participated in drills and joined the team on runs, hoping to set the tone. But she’s found more success when she takes a step back and lets her players “make it happen for themselves.”
“To give them some observation, or give them some advice, and watch them put it into play and watch the lightbulb moment, is even more rewarding than playing,” O’Neil said.
She credited former coaches for helping her on the road to joining their ranks, but said her father’s influence has never been far. The two would often debrief after her games as a player, dissecting what her team could have done differently, and eventually O’Neil started to have all the right answers.
So her father suggested she consider taking over her own team, and now the two are on the phone every couple of days, with the elder O’Neil even offering to come by and help train the team’s goalies.
“He set the standard for how coaches should be,” O’Neil said. “It’s always been great to talk with him about wins and losses and the mentality of the team. He’s taught me so much about ending a game with both sides feeling like they held their dignity the whole time.”
Sometimes, that can even translate into disappointment after blowing a team out, or jubilance after a tough loss – a lesson that the journey can matter more than the result.
“He really taught me about what to look for in a game: finding positives in things that didn’t seem positive at all and looking to build even when you come out on top,” she said. “There’s always more to do.”
O’Neil imparts a similar lesson to her own players, emphasizing that beyond wins and losses, “when they all put in the effort together, they all grow.”
Growing up as an O’Neil did come with some challenges, of course, headlined by the pressure of growing up in a place where everyone knows your family. That’s why, by the time she was ready to head to college, O’Neil was more than ready to become just another face in the crowd.
But over time, O’Neil’s family name became something she appreciates, finding that people who knew her father now look forward to building a similar relationship with her.
It doesn’t hurt that the two O’Neils, at times, can feel like one in the same. “Even my siblings are like, ‘Could you guys just please try and be a little different?’” O’Neil said. “Or I’ll be talking to my mother about something and she’s like, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m talking to your father.’”
She did concede one difference, suggesting retirement may be softening the veteran coach. She recalled a recent coaching decision in which she made several players sit out a game because they missed practice to partake in a national hockey tournament. When she mentioned plans to enforce her miss-a-game, sit-a-game policy, her father advocated for leniency.
But when O’Neil says something, she means it, and rules were rules, so that was that.
“My dad says I need to be a little bit softer. I’m trying,” O’Neil said. “[But] part of it is I’m a new varsity coach, and I’ve got to set the tone. I’ve got to let them know I mean business, and I want them to do well.”
“So maybe I am a little tougher,” she added, shrugging with a smile and a hint of pride.