WHITE TWP, Pa. — After an exciting preseason that saw a brief stint with the Johnstown Tomahawks of the North American Hockey League, Pat O’Neal is back to his roots and playing high school hockey once more.
O’Neal made a surprising decision to come back to high school hockey, rather than pursuing other junior options after being released from the Tomahawks at the beginning of the season. What O’Neal has done at Indiana is what he’s always done best: score. With 32 goals and 68 points in only 17 games played this season, O’Neal has been the most dominant offensive player in all of the PIHL’s Single-A classification.
As the statistics show, O’Neal is a tremendous offensive player that knows what it takes to put the puck in the back of the net. But it’s not just that part of his game that has improved as a senior at Indiana. O’Neal says it’s his work ethic that helps with all of it.
“My greatest strength as a player is probably just my work ethic,” said O’Neal. “I always try to give it my all out there and just make things happen.”
Giving it his all is an understatement on his part. Whether it’s practice or a game, O’Neal constantly puts forth his best effort to better himself and his team. While O’Neal has been such a hard worker, it also helps that he’s been a naturally gifted hockey player.
“Pat is a hard worker with a gift for finding the perfect spot to shoot,” said assistant coach Zane McElhenny. “He makes everyone around him better on the ice.”
The players around O’Neal have definitely been playing better alongside him. Along with O’Neal, Indiana also boasts two other players with over 30 points this season. Forward Ethan Boyer and defenseman Mitchell Lewis, scoring 33 and 38 points respectively, have been a great compliment to the Chiefs’ arsenal.
“We all get along really well,” said O’Neal. “We’re all best friends and hang out a lot on off days.”
BACK TO THE BEGINNINGS
A player as talented and gifted as O’Neal certainly had other options to pursue after his release by the Tomahawks, which made his decision to return to Indiana surprising. O’Neal believes he made the right decision, citing his love for the team as a prime factor.
“I’ve always loved high school hockey,” he said. “It’s always a lot of fun to come out in play in front of my hometown and play with my friends. I wanted to enjoy my senior year.”
Although he didn’t get to spend the whole season season with the Tomahawks, O’Neal developed an appreciation for his time there.
“It was a great experience being the youngest guy there and looking up to some of the great players,” said O’Neal. “It was a lot of fun, I learned a lot, and I found out what I have to do if I want to go onto Juniors.”
“I feel the Tomahawks gave him better tips on how to round out his game,” added McElhenny. “He has played better defensive hockey than before.”
Being the league leader in points in Single-A scoring, one wouldn’t expect O’Neal to be the kind of player with a defensive attitude. With his strive for improvement, however, O’Neal has proven to his community that he continuously wishes to better himself.
THE END OF THE ROAD
McElhenny thinks that O’Neal plays at his best when the pressure is on him, and he’s been looked at as one of the leaders of this year’s Indiana squad.
“Pat leads by example out on the ice,” said McElhenny. “He’s at his best when the pressure is on him to make a big play.”
Despite all of his success, O’Neal still thinks there’s areas of his game that he can improve on.
“I need to work on staying positive,” he said. “I tend to get in my own head when things aren’t going my way. Sometimes I take myself out of the game that way.”
O’Neal and the rest of his Indiana teammates enjoyed great success this season. Indiana currently sits in second place in the Eastern Conference. After high school, O’Neal still hopes to pursue his quest in becoming a junior player.
“I hope to still be playing hockey after school,” said O’Neal. “I’ll try to play in the juniors, and if not, I’ll go to college at Robert Morris. … I love playing here and spending time with the guys,” said O’Neal. “It’s definitely been a great time.”
Indiana will finish the regular season tonight against Norwin at 7:30 p.m. at S&T Bank Arena.