URI slugger enjoys storybook ending after rocky start

Matt O’Neil has been an anchor in the URI baseball lineup this season. The fifth-year senior is batting .323 with a slugging percentage of .608 on the year while adding 9 home runs and 37 RBI. O’Neil is top three on the Rams roster in all four of those categories standing third in average, second in homeruns, and first in both RBI and slugging percentage.

The road to being one of the top bats in the Atlantic 10 is a long and winding one for O’Neil. Originally from East Longmeadow, Massachusetts, O’Neil was a top prosper in the Northeast and had committed to play college baseball at the University of Connecticut following his high school career. After not appearing in any Huskie starts in his freshman season in 2013, O’Neil decided to transfer and play for the Rhode Island Rams.  

O’Neil remained sidelined for the 2014 season, his first at Rhode Island, due to transferring rules that require a player sits for one year after switching schools. After making 25 starts in 2015 and just 16 starts in 2016, O’Neil has powered his way to 33 starts already in 2017 and become a lethal weapon in URI’s deep lineup. He has slowly worked his way from essentially missing two full seasons to becoming a premiere two-way player.    

“I felt like this was a year [O’Neil] was going to breakout,” Rams head coach Raphael Cerrato said. “I think he was in a good place mentally. He has matured, and his work ethic has been outstanding.”  

The 2017 campaign that O’Neil has pieced together is nothing short of outstanding.  According to Cerrato it has been a full four seasons of training through the summer, fall, and winter for O’Neil and that has him where he is right now and it is not shocking that O’Neil is performing so well.

“He has always had a talent and has always showed glimpses of it,” Cerrato said. “This year he is making good plays mentally and emotionally and he’s just playing and having fun while playing baseball. I always knew he had it in him, always knew he had it in him.”

For O’Neil, it was about working in the preseason in the backstage before the spotlight went on that has him playing so well. “It came down to my preseason work during the winter,” O’Neil said. “Trying to swing everyday and as much as I could. I really came in this year with a lot better mentality.”  

Being around a college baseball environment for five years brings experience, knowledge and the ability to adapt to situations. O’Neil has brought all of that to the table this year. His leadership has stood out on and off the field. He said that he has never been one for vocal leadership but by leading by example O’Neil makes statements for his teammates to follow.  “I try to lead as much as I can on the field and set good examples off the field,” O’Neil said.  

One of O’Neil’s shining moments to his 2017 season came against in-state rival Brown University on April 11. With the game knotted at two apiece heading into the bottom of the tenth it was O’Neil who would come through for Rhode Island. O’Neil’s three-run opposite field homer in the tenth was the difference maker as Rhody would walk away victorious. This is just another situation where O’Neil led by example. “I think that anyone of our older guys loves to be up in that situation when you need a big hit or need a great play in the field,” O’Neil said.  

Much like the bulk of his baseball journey, the future for O’Neil and baseball is unclear.  However, he and his head coach have faith that he can play at the next level.

“Coming out of high school he was a prospect and part of him was maybe too focused on that,” Cerrato said.  “This year he is just playing and that’s when he played his best. I just recently talked to scouts about how they need to see him play. I think he is capable of playing at the next level.”  

O’Neil’s love for the game only intensifies as his collegiate career nears its close, and he realizes that he is not ready to put this rollercoaster ride that he calls baseball behind him.

“I honestly don’t want to stop playing,” O’Neil said. “It is almost like fear mixed with the feeling of it being my last year. I don’t want to stop.”