Sophomore Matthew O’Neal wakes up early to start his day as a student athlete.
He has practice in the morning, class during the day and games throughout the week. While this routine lasts a semester for most athletes, O’Neal repeats this schedule twice throughout the school year.
O’Neal is dual athlete — a member of both the track and soccer teams, but soccer came much earlier than track, he said.
When he was seven years old, the first piece of athletic equipment he received was a soccer ball. But he was also exposed to many different sports.
“What drew me into sports was my family,” O’Neal said. “Both my parents played basketball, and both my sisters played soccer. I have a younger brother that plays sports as well, so it’s a family thing.”
His parents, who he describes as loving and supportive, both played basketball at Jackson State University. While he also tried playing basketball, his strongest passion was for soccer.
“I saw how fun soccer was,” O’Neal said. “It was a family sport that my sisters, brother and I played together. It was something we could all have in common.”
Soccer is a sport he has not only shared with his family since childhood, but with another teammate on the Bulls’ roster.
“I’ve played with Matthew most of my life, since seven years old,” freshman midfielder Marcus Epps said. “We’ve had multiple seasons together. It’s been enjoyable to play with him.”
Both Epps and O’Neal were teammates growing up in their hometown of Jackson, Miss. They played together on the team that won Central Jackson Soccer Organization its first state championship in program history.
“We got down to overtime, and I was on the sideline cheering on the team,” O’Neal said. “We all kept going and finally got a goal. That ended the game, everyone just stormed the field.”
That game eventually helped Epps make the decision to play for USF after seeing O’Neal enjoy his experience as a Bull.
“It kind of felt like family is here, so he made it feel more welcoming,” Epps said.
While O’Neal now has a fellow Mississippian on the team who helps with the southern transition, the idea of family was something he had to create from two groups of athletes.
“My teammates really support me and helped me transition from a smaller city in Mississippi to a big city like Tampa,” O’Neal said. “It was better for me to be in a team environment.”
When other schools were offering him the chance to play either soccer or track and field, USF offered the opportunity for O’Neal to play both sports. After seeing other high school athletes play football and track, he decided to try accompanying track with soccer.
“USF was the best option for doing both sports since both teams were good,” O’Neal said.
Before running at USF, O’Neal was introduced to track and field during the eighth grade. He started running the 800-meter and mile-long events before being moved to the long jump in the ninth grade out of necessity.
“The coach wanted me to do another event that no one else was doing, so he put me in it,” O’Neal said. “I enjoyed doing it. I hadn’t heard of the triple jump until I got to high school, so it was a really fun event to learn.”
Since competing in the triple jump at USF, O’Neal has qualified for the Big East Tournament in the outdoor event and holds the third-highest outdoor triple jump in Bulls’ history (50-3.5).
In addition to finding
success in the outdoor event, he won the Big East Championship in the indoor triple jump (49-11.25).
Even with track and field events pairing athletes against the clock, O’Neal still finds a way to create a team-like atmosphere, which he learned from soccer, so he can positively contribute to track.
“Soccer is a team sport,” O’Neal said. “I like helping my team out. I transfer that to the track just so the focus isn’t on the individual. I just see what I can do to help better the team and help them out in points.”
He said he is also careful about balancing working out for both sports without running the risk of injury.
“I try to stay away from doing two practices in one day unless it’s for one sport,” O’Neal said. “I might do soccer practice and that could be enough running to keep in shape for track.
His regimen is noticed by his track teammates, as they see him handle the responsibilities that come with being a dual athlete.
“He has soccer, and then he has to come out for track, so he’s always in really good shape,” senior track athlete Rachael Klinger said. “He balances sports out really well; better than I’ve seen anyone do it.”
Among the balancing act, Epps said he still keeps a calm composure on the field that is the highlight of his playing style.
“He’s been a real calm, smooth, technical player ever since I’ve been playing with him,” he said. “I enjoy watching him play. He makes smart decisions, he’s athletic and he recovers well. It’s just fun to watch him play, even after all these years.”