When Connor O’Neill crosses the finish line, he’s exhausted and relieved, but his race isn’t finished.
O’Neill typically sticks around the home stretch until every one of his Jesuit cross country teammates has finished behind him.
After all, the senior figures that they’re part of the reason why he’s been able to become one of the elite high school runners in the state. Two years ago, O’Neill placed 47th at the Class 6A state meet, but last year he was sixth.
Individual improvement surely has something to do with that. But another difference is that the Rangers qualified for state as a team in 2015 for the first time.
“I wasn’t really so much focused on myself because I wanted to get the team there,” said O’Neill, a Preston Hollow resident. “It was a huge difference having them there at the starting line with me.”
This year, O’Neill’s focus is on returning for a third consecutive state meet, and on earning a spot on the medal podium — both individually and with his teammates.
“He’s very intuitive and very forward-thinking in terms of knowing what he wants to accomplish,” said Jesuit cross country coach Doug Robinson. “There’s a level of confidence that’s been established.”
Both of his parents have run multiple marathons, but O’Neill didn’t concentrate on distance running himself until after he tried soccer first.
“I was always better at the running part of it,” he said. “I could play the whole game and not get tired.”
Once he enrolled at Jesuit, O’Neill gravitated to cross country, in addition to running distance races for the school’s track team. He trains every day, running about 50-60 miles per week.
During his sophomore season, the Rangers finished third at the Class 6A Region II meet as a team, but O’Neill was an individual qualifier for the state meet. He finished back in the pack after being knocked to the ground while running.
The following year, O’Neill channeled that disappointment into one of the strongest seasons for any runner in the history of the Jesuit program.
“He approached it with a lot more maturity,” Robinson said. “He’s always used those setbacks as a springboard for greater success.”
After opening some eyes with that effort a year ago — which included a runner-up result at regionals — O’Neill has been even faster this fall. He won three consecutive races during the regular season and never placed lower than fourth.
Now he’s preparing for his final regional meet on Oct. 31 in Grand Prairie, likely followed by the state meet on Nov. 12 in Round Rock. Next year, he hopes to continue running in college, perhaps trying longer distances.
Robinson said higher expectations this season haven’t fazed his team’s top athlete. In fact, they’ve motivated him.
“He embraces that and feeds off that,” Robinson said. “He knows that he can run with these guys. He’s faced the best in the state. He goes to the start line feeling he has a chance to win.”