One of the most dangerous goal scorers in the state, Fairview High's Shane O'Neill felt helpless at times in last season's state quarterfinal loss to cross-town rival Boulder.
O'Neill watched from his striker position as most of the soccer took place in the middle of the field. Boulder prevailed 3-1 without O'Neill getting into much of a flow.
"That was the end of the season and I felt like I didn't get the ball that much," O'Neill says. "In the midfield, you're on the ball a lot more and have more control over the game, more chances to create."
Sensing the need for O'Neill to touch the ball more this season in the big games in order to put the Knights in more favorable situations, FHS coach Stan Jozwiak moved his senior co-captain to the midfield. But make no mistake, O'Neill is still scoring his goals, and he's got the third-ranked Knight's thinking state title despite a 2-2-1 start against a brutal early-season schedule.
"He'll continue to score his goals in whatever form that takes," Jozwiak says. "But our effort is for him to be a hugely strong link in the middle of the field for us."
O'Neill's six goals in five games this season are tied for third in Class 5A. But he's also far more than a scorer for the Knights. He's one of the best all-around players in school history.
O'Neill already holds the school record for assists. He's tied for the school's career points lead (92), set by John Ackland in the early 1990s. And barring injury, his chances of scoring eight more goals and breaking Ackland's mark on that chart seem solid as well.
An elite player who spurned a chance to play for the Colorado Rapids' reserve squad over the summer because it would have cost him eligibility for his final prep season, O'Neill is more concerned with the fate of the Knights this season than the records.
FHS owns wins over No. 2 Arapahoe and Green Mountain, but lost to No. 1 Cherry Creek and No. 8 Ralston Valley and tied No. 7 Fort Collins.
"It's good to have all those things," says O'Neill, who also stars on the basketball court for FHS. "But I've gotten to the quarterfinals three times, and team-wise I'd really like to do better than that. The individual things, I think it's more of a testament to all my teammates. The four years I've been involved I've had some really good teammates."
Despite all of his accolades, Shane, of course, isn't the most well-known of the O'Neill brothers. That honor goes to older brother Darragh, another two-sport star at FHS who earned the Colorado Buffaloes football team's starting punting job this fall after never having played the sport growing up save for a brief stint in middle school.
"I think it motivates you," Shane says of watching what his brother is doing with the Buffs.
In a family of six children -- there are two boys and two girls behind Shane -- that centers much of its life on sports, comparisons are inevitable. And while he gives Darragh the nod in basketball, Shane says he's got him beat on the soccer pitch.
"Those are two very passionate, intense athletes," says Jozwiak, who also has sophomore O'Neill brother Enda on his varsity squad this season. "Shane probably has a little more of the fundamentals of the game than Darragh did.
"Everybody sees the goals (Shane) scores, but his ability to get the ball under pressure to provide players with great chances, to me, is what stands out."
Just as fiery as his older brother on the field if not quite as vocal, O'Neill has earned the respect of his teammates as someone who sets the standard for hard work and leads by example. And, of course, his ability is all right, too.
"He can just put (the ball) wherever he wants it," says junior Eric Kronenberg, the team's second-leading scorer a year ago.
Shane O'Neill mostly just jokes right now with his dad that if college soccer doesn't work out he plans to play football. That's because he's likely a surefire Division-I prospect in soccer.
He took an official visit to Santa Clara two weekends ago and has also gotten serious attention from Oregon State, Gonzaga, Central Arkansas and Denver.
Jozwiak says his star's knowledge of the game, his physical qualities and his touch with the ball all already lend themselves to an adult level of play.
"Shane's got some very well-developed soccer abilities," Jozwiak says.