So as he prepares for the final regular season home game of his much-decorated university soccer career this weekend, you’re unlikely to hear anything even remotely boastful from him about how much he’s meant to the UFV Cascades over the past five years.
His career has been such, though, that others are more than willing to do the talking for him.
UFV head coach Tom Lowndes, for instance, needs little prompting – simply mention O’Neill’s name, and the superlatives start flowing.
“He’s the type of player that every coach in this league would want,” Lowndes said of O’Neill, whose Cascades home-field finale comes this Friday vs. the Trinity Western Spartans (7:30 p.m., Abbotsford Senior Secondary). “If you had 10 Colton O’Neills on your team, you’d go 16-0, undefeated. And you’d win a national championship. He’s that good.”
That’s high praise, and the Cascades’ progress up the Canada West ladder has been distinct since the 5’8” right back arrived on campus in the fall of 2011, fresh out of Abbotsford’s W.J. Mouat Secondary.
In O’Neill’s rookie year, the Cascades struggled to a record of 1-11-2, tied for last place in Canada West. In 2012, they improved to 5-5-4, but missed the post-season by a single point. The following season brought a breakthrough – UFV made the playoffs for the first time in its eight-season Canada West tenure, and went on to defeat the Alberta Golden Bears and the Victoria Vikes en route to the conference bronze medal. 2014 yielded a Canada West first team all-star award for O’Neill and a second consecutive playoff appearance for the Cascades, albeit a brief one, as they suffered a heartbreaking 2-1 loss to UVic in the conference quarter-finals.
O’Neill has worn the captain’s armband this fall, and has helped steer UFV to a 4-3-1 record, good for third place in the ultra-competitive Pacific Division.
“It’s hard to believe, to be honest, that it’s been five years,” said O’Neill, who has a team-high three goals this season. “It’s just flown by . . . I’m looking to finish strong.
“I think it’ll definitely be emotional for me (on Friday). I’ve put quite a lot into this, so it’s going to be sad to see it go.”
Reflecting on time with the Cascades, O’Neill’s favourite highlight was the run to the Canada West bronze in 2013 – and specifically, the goal he scored vs. Alberta in the quarter-finals. It came in the 86th minute, and lifted UFV a 1-0 victory.
“That was just a great experience,” he said. “And we were in downtown Vancouver for a couple days (for the Canada West Final Six at UBC) with all the guys, so it was a ton of fun.
“We’ve definitely been progressing, and I’m definitely proud to make a contribution to that. This year, hopefully we can take the next step to nationals. And if not, I’m sure down the road it’ll happen pretty soon. I think we’re right there.”
Another thrill for O’Neill has been playing alongside his older brother Trevor (who graduated last spring) and his twin brother Connor (who is in his fourth year of eligibility after redshirting the 2011 season due to injury).
“It definitely made the first year easier, because Trevor was already here and me and Connor were rookies,” he said. “It’s been fun. We tease each other a bit, and there’s a lot of competition between us – in training, whoever’s scoring more goals and stuff like that. It was one of the reasons we all came here – so we could all play on the same team.”
O’Neill is the lone fifth-year player on the Cascades men’s soccer team, and as such, he’s got Senior Night festivities all to himself on Friday. He’ll be honoured in a pregame ceremony.
Lowndes would rather not say goodbye – he knows replacing O’Neill’s production next season will be a difficult task. He believes his captain could have a future playing professionally; O’Neill, for his part, says he’s open to the idea, and he had a tryout with Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2 last spring. But he’s currently focusing on finishing off his Bachelor of Science degree at UFV, with an eye on pursuing further education in the field of genetics when he’s done.
“You never really replace a player like that – you look for pieces and you look for people, but players like Colton come around once every five, six, seven, eight years,” Lowndes said. “He rarely puts a foot wrong. Every day in training, he’s never below an eight out of 10. Every single day he does what he needs to do. He works hard, and does it for the team.
“We’re hoping we can go out with a bang and make his last home game something special.”