O’Neal’s Middle School Girls Basketball Team won their conference championship this year. In looking back at records, the middle school stats were not really the focus, so for what we know, this marks the first conference championship for an O’Neal Middle School Girls team. In 2008, the championship was within sight, but the team lost in the final game. As we celebrate this remarkable accomplishment, we look back on the sport of basketball at O’Neal.
O’Neal is not a school known for its basketball. In fact, the school doesn’t hold a single state title in the sport. Its significance is its beginning at O’Neal, and its role in the lives of so many students and the essence of community that it provides.
The second year of Wallace O’Neal Day School provided enough students to start an athletics program. Enrollment had more than doubled from the first year of 35 students. The 3rd and 8th grades were added to the base 4th-6th grade offering. With Bob Haarlow as headmaster, it was only natural for basketball to be the winter sport. Haarlow’s whole life experience pretty much revolved around basketball. His father was a professional basketball player and later became commissioner for the Big 10 officials. Bob and his siblings experienced a childhood that many youngsters (who liked basketball) would only dream of. Bob and his two brothers all played basketball at Princeton University. Bob’s teammate was the famous Bill Bradley who went on to play for the Knicks. Given Coach Haarlow’s background, it didn’t matter that there was no gym to practice in. The team practiced on the court… in the cold outdoors. The Falcons were not able to host a home game until a gym was built in 1974. There wasn’t much attention paid to the age of the players. If they wanted to play, they played. There was no organized athletic conference at the time. They simply found nearby schools to schedule games.
Retired O’Neal coach and faculty member Beth Whitman coached the girls’ team starting in 1977. She remembers traveling with the boys’ team and the cheerleaders all in one bus, which didn’t have heat. They would play the larger public high schools, many times suffering a large loss. “I felt so intimidated,” she would recall. However, she added: “We may not have won many games, but we had fun.”
O’Neal was not always on the losing end of contests. Roberta Quis ’99 reflects: “Head Coach Steve Dahl led the way during my four years with the help of Assistant Coach Lois Ashley. Coach Dahl always stressed the importance of stepping on the court committed to the team and ready to give one hundred percent. We went from only three conference wins my freshman year to a historic season in 1997, winning O’Neal’s first conference championship and tournament championship for Girls Basketball. The seniors that year were Robin Bradbury and Gabrielle Miller-Messner. I have memories of several nail-biter games that season, but more importantly I remember all the fun we had off the court.”
Teams often pulled through for a championship win among the area public high schools at the county “Holiday Tournament” – which later changed to “The Pilot Cup”. Retired varsity girls’ coach Don Woodfield has many great memories, and one of them was the girls’ two consecutive Pilot Cup Championship wins playing Union Pines, Pinecrest and North Moore in 2005 and 2006.
Sydney McIlwain ’09 reflects, “Looking back on all the games, practices, trips, and tournaments, I cannot help but still feel a piece of the O’Neal spirit. From the classmates in the stands, to my fellow teammates to coaches, that same community spirit permeates every memory. It is that strong sense of community that has propelled O’Neal then and now to be the special place that it is. Perhaps the best embodiment of that spirit is Don Woodfield. It would be impossible to articulate the lasting impact his coaching and mentorship had on my life and all that can count themselves lucky enough to have called him coach.”
In the later years, the sense of community has surfaced with basketball games. It is a place for friends to meet and enjoy a game, the concessions stand, a spaghetti dinner and more. Students of all ages enjoy the safe, comfortable environment. John Krahnert ’04 who briefly was a sports reporter for The Pilot once remarked, “O’Neal truly has a home court advantage.” Through 2009 in Tate Gymnasium, the homecoming games grew to be standing room only. Championship games in the Hannah Center continue to be an experience like none other.
Lately, the girls varsity basketball team has made its mark at O’Neal as well as around the state – all with the coaching expertise of Lulu Brase, the Lady Falcons have just recently celebrated their fourth consecutive conference season and tournament championship and has competed in two consecutive state championship games. “My experience at O’Neal is something I will cherish all my life and honestly, I would not trade it for anything,” says Toyin Koleoso ’18 and team member for Skidmore College Women’s Basketball. “Being an international student from Nigeria, without any family members in the United States, the O’Neal School gave me a family, not just a family, but families, and that means a lot to me. Playing for Coach Brase is something I would do again and again if it’s possible. She may not know this but she was the only one apart from myself that pushed me harder to be where I am today. I hated doing that extra run, or extra line touch but she made me do them because she believed in me and my potential. She made me realize that I can be whatever and whoever I want to be if I pushed through that extra run. Through Coach Brase, I learned RESILIENCE, I became TENACIOUS, not just on the basketball court but in the classroom as well. And I am thankful for that RESILIENCE and TENACIOUSNESS that I learned in high school while playing for her. It translated to my college athletic career, academics and even competing in the job markets for internships and full-time positions.”
The varsity boys’ team has always played with a lot of heart and desire to win. It has also developed tremendously over the years. In 2013, the team won the conference tournament championship allowing them to make a state appearance under the former coach Dr. David Graves, otherwise known as “Doc”. Jacob Talbert ’13 and alumnus of Campbell University Men’s Basketball recalls, “I really enjoyed my time as a Falcon playing under Doc. He taught me a lot about the game and mentored me through tough situations. I thoroughly enjoyed celebrating and bringing home the conference title for him because he put so much effort into coaching and mentoring us that I wanted him to be rewarded for it. Assistant Coach Mitch Poole was another great part of the reason that we succeeded because he helped drive that competitive spirit in us. He also got us into great shape so we could run with the best of them. He and Doc were great teachers and mentors through all situations, and I thank them for the great times they helped us achieve. Both are a huge reason that we won the title, but of course my teammates were there to secure it on the court. The group that we had was special and the comradery that we all shared played a big part in our successful year. The guys that I played with made it a joy to play the game and come to school every day. One of the best memories I have is us being able to win the championship on our homecourt and celebrate it with friends and family. The atmosphere was electric, and I will cherish it for all time. The championship did a lot for the School and brought everyone closer together knowing that we accomplished something that had not been done in over twenty years. I owe the guys and coaches everything because without them, the championship would not have come to O’Neal and I would not have had such a great time without such a crew to call friends and teammates.”
Bob Haarlow’s son, Jeff Haarlow, O’Neal Class of 1992, is now head coach for the varsity boys’ team. He took a different path and coached college basketball for a while before returning to his roots. His father supports him tremendously from the side lines and they both wear red socks to every game. A tradition that Bob could not truly remember how it came about, but it stuck.
It holds true that communities and other people (namely coaches) can make a lasting impression and enrich the lives of student-athletes. To close, Richard Joyner, valedictorian of the first graduating class reflects on O’Neal’s first basketball coach Bob Haarlow – “So here I am in high school, probably 6’ 2” at the time, skinny as a rail. Haarlow had a pretty amazing basketball career – he played with Bill Bradley at Princeton on a team that went to the Final Four. And while I was at O’Neal, he was still young(er), stronger, and more athletic, and he spent a lot of time working with me, one-on-one, to teach me what he had learned in his remarkable basketball career. We played against one another in practice, in one-on-one duels, more times than I can recall. I hated losing – I always have – and he beat me a lot more than I beat him. But he always made me a better player.
It was like so many things Bob Haarlow did for me and so many others. He helped me see possibilities. Possibilities I never dreamed of, and never would have seen for myself without him. I’ve always been fond of the saying that people can’t dream any farther than they can see, and he extended my horizon way beyond where it was at the time. Time with Bob Haarlow was never just about basketball. It was about life, and it’s stayed with me for the 40+ years since I graduated. Everyone needs a coach like Bob Haarlow – encouraging them, nudging them forward, and discovering the very best parts of them. I owe Bob Haarlow a debt of gratitude. I try to ‘pay forward’ every day.”
Falcons Fly to 50
O’Neal is excited to share its history with readers as it quickly nears its 50th year in educating and cultivating youth in becoming successful, effective contributors to communities large and small. The official celebration starts school year 2021/2022. This weekly blog will focus on different aspects of the School as it grew through the years. With every entry, there is just as much more information to gather than what is already written. Readers who have been a part of the O’Neal community are encouraged to reach out and share their O’Neal memories. It is with great hope that the efforts of many in contributing information and photography can be published into a book for reflection and reference as the School continues to prosper for the next 50 years.
Please send your memoirs and photos to:
The O’Neal School
c/o Kathy Taylor, Director of Communications
P.O. Box 290
Southern Pines, NC 28388