To say that volleyball is life for Raya O’Neal is not an overstatement.
The East Hampton senior has had a love affair with the sport for years, and that dedication is now paying off in the form of a full ride to Division I Hampton University in Virginia. O’Neal, one of the best volleyball players to ever grace the Bonac courts, has made history for the successful Lady Bonackers program, becoming the first player that longtime head coach Kathy McGeehan has ever had to earn a full ride to a Division I school.
A look at O’Neal’s career stats make it clear why Hampton made such a big commitment to her.
O’Neal is a five-year varsity player who made her team debut as an eighth-grader as its back-up setter; that team advanced to the New York State Final Four. She took over the starting role the next year as a freshman and helped lead the team to the League VI title and Suffolk County Class A finals. She was named the league’s Rookie of the Year and was also an All-Conference and All-County Tournament Team selection.
As a sophomore, O’Neal earned those two honors again as her team advanced to the Class A quarterfinals. Last year, as a starting setter and outside hitter, she led the team to the Class B county final and was named All-County, All-County Tournament Team and All-Long Island Honorable Mention. As a senior this fall, O’Neal was once again a starting setter/outside hitter, led her team to the League VI championship and the Class B finals, and although postseason awards have not been announced yet, she will most likely be named All-County and All-Long Island once again.
O’Neal now holds East Hampton records for three out of five career stat categories—she’s first in kills (764), aces (201) and assists (1,975). She also holds the single-season assist record with 764 in 2010, and is second in single season kills (311 this year) behind 1998 graduate Karen Bennett (340).
O’Neal said she wasn’t sure at first if Hampton was the place for her, but she did let Hampton coach Karen Weatherington know that her club team would be playing in Nationals in Dallas during the summer. Weatherington came to see O’Neal at Nationals and then invited her for a visit to the campus in August. That sealed the deal.
“I loved the campus,” O’Neal said. “It wasn’t too big or too small. I also loved that it’s right on the water. It reminds me of home. The coaching staff and team was just so welcoming and I felt that I could easily fit in.”
Continuing her career after high school is only natural for O’Neal, who started playing volleyball when she was in sixth grade. She went to her first sleep-away camp at that time, and started playing on the East End Waves club team as well. She said she always looked up to her older sister, Myra O’Neal, who was a star player for the Lady Bonackers as well.
“I was always dying to be able to play like her and everyone else on the [Waves] team,” she said.
Raya O’Neal’s collegiate aspirations began at a young age, too, when she started watching college volleyball matches on TV as a seventh-grader. Watching and recording college matches has become an “obsession,” O’Neal said, one she shares with McGeehan.
“She is the only person I know who has as much college volleyball taped on her DVR as I do,” McGeehan said. “She has been a student of the game and can never get enough. Her love for the game, tremendous commitment and desire to be the best she can be has inspired me in the last six years.”
The bond between the coach and player is unusually strong, thanks not only to O’Neal’s five-year varsity career but also the countless hours spent together in the offseason.
“I will miss Raya a great deal because we have spent so much time together,” McGeehan said. “Six years of travel club volleyball, five years of high school. We have been to Puerto Rico, Kansas City, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and everywhere on Long Island and New York City.”
O’Neal said that in addition to the support she’s had from McGeehan, her parents, Tina Giles and Louis O’Neal, have been crucial to her success as well, supporting long rides to club practices and coming to all her high school games.
O’Neal, her family and McGeehan are all excited to see what the next phase of her career holds. She will major in communications with hopes of being a sports broadcaster one day.
“Raya has worked super hard to get to this point and I am excited for her to continue to grow as a student athlete at Hampton next year,” McGeehan said. “I hope they have a spot for me so I can add Virginia to our list of places I have been with Raya playing volleyball.”