A balanced scoring attack and a relentless full-court pressure defense are the primary ingredients for O'Neill's 14-1 start to the 2020-21 season.
"Our girls are playing at a high level right now," O'Neill coach Brock Eichelberger said. "We're trusting the process. We really have a good group of girls that are athletic and, on top of that, they're just very coachable. They do anything that we ask of them."
The Eagles have three players averaging in double figures: Lauren Young (12 points per game), Alissa Eichelberger (11) and Meg Schluns (11).
"We're pretty balanced," Eichelberger said. "If one girl is off that night, somebody else has been stepping up. We've needed girls to step up in different situations, and they have."
But Eichelberger said the main reason his squad is 14-1 is its defense.
"They've really bought into holding teams down, lessening shooting percentages and trying to make everything difficult." the coach said.
Young, a junior power forward, guards the opponent's best post player each night out. "She does not come off the floor very much," Eichelberger said. "Offensively, she's really extended her game. She has the highest percentage in 3-point shooting on the team (8 for 12, 67%).
"I just need to get her to shoot more. She's a great free throw shooter. Great kid all the way around. She's really coming into her own."
Eichelberger’s daughter and senior point guard Alissa is seen as the team's catalyst on offense. "She's the reason why teams don't have a lot of success pressing us," the coach said. "She probably hasn't scored as much in some of the games as she'd like to, but she's finding the girls that are open, she's breaking the press, getting us into our offense and being a really good leader."
Schluns — another senior guard — joins Eichelberger at the top of the Eagles' full-court press. Coach Eichlberger said the pair have caused a lot of havoc, and he described Schluns as a bullet. "She is explosive. She doesn't look like she could rebound, but she's our leading rebounder on the team (6.6 per game).
"She can get into spots other people can't. She does the dirty work and is our best defender. We put her on the best offensive player most games, regardless of how tall they are, and she does a good job."
After struggling with it throughout her career, senior small forward Blair Gutschall has been staying out of foul trouble, Eichelberger said. "She's a good post for us; she's got a great mid-range jump shot; she has also opened up the 3," he said.
"She started shooting 3s in practice and she started making a lot of them. So, we told her, 'You get an open look in a game, do it.' I think that first game she was 2 for 3 and in the last seven games, she's had at least one 3 a game."
Eichelberger said junior guard Zelie (pronounced ZELL-ee) Sorensen became more aggressive at the end of last season and that it's carried into this year. "She's not very big, but she can find a way to get to the rebound," he said. "She's a really good defender and can knock down some shots. She's starting to score more for us. She's in that 6- to 8-point range and has fit into her role."
Senior guard Kiersten Welke is the Eagles' first guard off the bench. "She's done a nice job for us, knocking down big shots when we've needed them. Her defense has really improved this year, and she's seen the floor more because of that."
Senior Becky Hupp, sophomores Ashley Pischel and Emma Smith, and freshman Presley Heiss also have given Eichelberger good minutes off the bench.
"We're trying to develop a little bit of depth right now," Eichelberger said. "Our younger kids' attitudes have been good these last few games. It's given them the opportunity to get on the floor a little more."
That depth has been essential in the past week as the Eagles are coming off a stretch of four games in six days that has resulted in wins over Ainsworth, Creighton, Neligh-Oakdale and Wagner, South Dakota.
"The Tuesday game (Wagner) was a tough one, and we kind of challenged them," Eichelberger said "We told them, 'We've got the same type of team (Guardian Angels Central Catholic) coming in here (on Friday)' and 'Are we more mature than we were a year ago (a 71-50 loss)?' I really think we are.
"We kind of proved that going down to (Hastings) Adams Central on a Saturday (Jan. 2), riding in a bus for two hours and 45 minutes, going down there and beating a really good Adams Central team (57-38)."
Two years ago, the Eagles came one win short of qualifying for the state tournament. Eichelberger thinks this group has the ability to get to Lincoln if it can stay healthy. "We're one injury away of not being as successful," Eichelberger said. "But if we stay healthy, I think our girls are capable of doing anything they want to do."
Previous No. 1 Crofton dropped a notch to second after suffering a hard-luck home loss on Monday to West Central of Hartford, South Dakota, 58-53. The visitors from the north are no slouch. The Trojans are the equivalent of a Class B school in Nebraska, have just one loss (by two points) are ranked No. 2 in the state.
North Bend Central switches places with the Warriors after wins over Fremont Bergan and Columbus Scotus. The Tigers have a showdown with Oakland-Craig on the slate for Thursday.
West Point-Beemer remains third after a 3-0 week that included a two-point barn-burner over Class B Elkhorn. The Cadets host Pierce on Tuesday.
Guardian Angels Central Catholic stays fourth, also after a 3-0 week that included a 28-point pasting of Class D juggernaut Fremont Bergan.
Clarkson/Leigh's showdown with Humphrey St. Francis had to be postponed because of Friday's blizzard. The undefeated Patriots still picked up a signature win, though, with a 59-52 verdict over Pender.
Sixth-ranked O'Neill has 14 wins and a single loss to Crofton. The Eagles welcome Guardian Angels Central Catholic to the Shamrock City on Friday.
Last week's No. 7, Ponca, fell to BRLD (Bancroft-Rosalie/Lyons-Decatur) on Saturday while eighth-ranked Pierce played Humphrey St. Francis tough before losing to Norfolk Catholic on a buzzer beater.
The Indians and Bluejays fall to the ranks of the honorably mentioned to make room for BRLD and Pender on the bottom two rungs of the ladder.
Other Class C teams deserving of honorable-mention status are Oakland-Craig, Norfolk Catholic, North Central, Wakefield, Ainsworth, Lutheran High Northeast and Howells-Dodge.
Top games this week
Thursday: Oakland-Craig at North Bend Central; Wynot at Pierce.
Friday: Guardian Angels Central Catholic at O'Neill; Lutheran High Northeast vs. Clarkson/Leigh, at Leigh; BRLD at Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family; Oakland-Craig vs. Norris, Omaha Hoops Classic at Ralston.
Saturday: Hartington Cedar Catholic at Guardian Angels Central Catholic; Howells-Dodge at Pender.
Tuesday: Pierce at West Point-Beemer; O'Neill at Norfolk Catholic; Ponca at Hartington Cedar Catholic; Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family at Oakland-Craig.
For the second straight week, the Class D chart remained unchanged, and it became ever clearer that the eight ranked teams have separated themselves from the rest of the field.
No. 1 Humphrey St. Francis held on to defeat Class C1 Pierce on Thursday and then allowed Riverside just 16 points in the quarterfinal round of the Goldenrod Conference tournament.
The Flyers will spend this weekend in St. Paul, defending their league crown. They've drawn Burwell for Friday's semifinal. A victory would send them to the title game on Saturday against the winner of the other semi between Fullerton and Nebraska Christian.
Second-ranked Chambers/Wheeler Central was impressive with a 3-0 week that included a 38-point pasting of a good Class C1 team in Ainsworth.
Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family is still third after downing Neligh-Oakdale and Summerland in the past week. The Bulldogs will be tested this week as they welcome BRLD on Friday and visit Oakland-Craig on Tuesday.
The snowstorm wiped out No. 4 Wynot's only scheduled game in the last week. The Blue Devils challenge Class C1 Pierce on Thursday.
Hartington Cedar Catholic remained in the fifth spot after a pair of quality wins over Lutheran High Northeast and Creighton. The Trojans have a couple of big tests this week at Guardian Angels on Saturday and at home against Ponca on Tuesday.
Summerland is still sixth after playing Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family tough in a 58-51 loss on Tuesday.
Elgin Public/Pope John improved to 12-3 with wins over Stuart and Winside. The Wolfpack will have the Niobrara Valley Conference tournament and regular-season contests with Summerland and CWC to prove they belong in a higher slot than No. 7.
And Elkhorn Valley rounds out the Class D elites. The Falcons earned a couple of quality wins over Bloomfield and Wausa in the past week and host Summerland on Tuesday.
There's only one other area Class D team with a .500 record, and that's Plainview. The Pirates are 7-7 and the only team this week to earn honorable-mention status.
Top games this week
Thursday: Wynot at Pierce.
Friday: BRLD at Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family
Friday and Saturday: Humphrey St. Francis, Goldenrod Conference Tournament at St. Paul.
Saturday: Viborg-Hurley, South Dakota, at Wynot.
Tuesday: Ponca at Hartington Cedar Catholic; Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family at Oakland-Craig; Summerland at Elkhorn Valley.