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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Sports >  High school sports

2023 Spring Sports Preview: West Valley catcher Easton O’Neal has a name – first and last – for the game

West Valley junior catcher Easton O’Neal, pictured before practice at the school on Wednesday, has committed to University of Washington.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
West Valley junior catcher Easton O’Neal, pictured before practice at the school on Wednesday, has committed to University of Washington. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

Easton O’Neal was destined to be a ballplayer.

When he was born, his mother gave his dad a list of five names she liked for the baby boy. One stood out immediately.

She submitted Easton as a candidate, unknowing that it was the name of a sporting goods company that specializes in manufacturing baseball and softball bats.

The choice was a no-brainer.

Easton’s father is longtime West Valley baseball coach Don O’Neal, who starred at Whitworth and signed as an undrafted free agent with the Detroit Tigers’ organization before retiring as a player.

“He decided it was time to go play ‘real life’ instead of baseball,” Easton said before Wednesday’s season opener against Cheney.

A life in coaching began for the elder O’Neal, up until Easton started getting serious about playing around 8 years old.

“It was really time-consuming,” Easton said of his dad’s commitments. “As I was getting older, I guess it wasn’t what was best for the family anymore.”

It was good for Easton, though, as his dad was able to pass down the good habits and training it takes to become a college-level baseball player – or perhaps even beyond.

O’Neal, a switch-hitting junior catcher, has committed to the University of Washington baseball program under new coach Jason Kelly.

West Valley coach Cory Aitken took over the program after Don O’Neal stepped down.

“Don does a great job with him,” Aitken said. “He knows the game. I think I learned half or two-thirds of my stuff from Don, playing with him and coaching with him. And so yeah, great baseball family.”

Easton, who carries 185 pounds on a 6-foot-3 frame, possesses plenty of attributes that make him a prime candidate for success.

“His tools that he has, I mean, he’s got a good arm. He’s got a good bat, and he’s long and lanky,” Aitken said. “I think the frame just entices people – they see that frame and see what he could be. And then on top of that, just the knowledge of the game, just knowing what he needs to do in situations and be there and be a team player.”

Unfortunately, one of the highest-profile players in the Greater Spokane League won’t see the field this season – unless the Eagles make it to the final four at state.

O’Neal suffered a knee injury last year that turned out to be more complicated than originally thought and he eventually had surgery in November. If his rehab continues to progress as expected, he’ll be cleared to return on May 23 – the Tuesday before the state finals weekend.

“It’s really hard,” O’Neal said. “Our second baseman, I played baseball with our whole life. He’s a senior, and so it (is difficult) to not be out there this spring with him. This season was like one last kind of hurrah with him.”

“It’s kind of a loss for him this year, but we don’t want to rush him back either,” Aitken said. “He definitely has a future in the game and a chance to go play. I know he wants to be out here with his high school buddies, but at the same time, he knows he’s also got to think about the future.”

O’Neal’s recruiting process started early, with programs making it known even before his freshman year they would be interested in him.

He originally was headed to Xavier (Ohio) University but decommitted last summer.

“I decided it wasn’t what I wanted,” he said. “I didn’t want to live in Ohio.”

He reopened his recruitment and got a lot of attention last summer when he played in the Area Code underclass games, where the top underclassmen in the country compete in a three-day showcase in front of MLB and college scouts.

“It was the best baseball event I’ve been a part of, was a great experience,” O’Neal said. “I mean, you’re playing against the top 150 draft prospects in the country picked by MLB scouts.”

But soon after followed the injury and subsequent surgery.

“That was a little nerve-wracking because I was talking to a lot of schools at that time that may have wanted to see me play a little bit more,” he said.

Surgery came at the end of November. He ended up with a fully torn medial meniscus, two cysts inside of the knee and an overgrown plica, a membrane inside the joint. He also had a partial synovectomy to remove additional inflamed membrane in the knee.

O’Neal didn’t know if his opportunity for Division I ball had come and gone.

“I was super stressed out, not knowing really what my future held,” he said.

“I thought maybe I was going to end up taking the junior college route, just because I wasn’t going to be physically where I needed to be the next summer to get recruited how I was recruited previously.”

It was an anxious period for the young athlete.

“I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t (anxiety). I think anybody would be lying,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, what’d I do?’ I had this offer on the table … what got me through the whole thing is God’s got a plan for everybody. It’s gonna work out exactly how he wants it to.”

But not long after, the Huskies came calling.

“(Assistant) Coach (Jake) Silverman texted me … and they had wanted me to come down for a camp on their campus.”

O’Neal told Silverman about the surgery, and that he wouldn’t be able to work out for the coaches.

“He was like, ‘We don’t need to see you play. We already saw you play. We just wanted you to meet the staff and get a feel for the campus,’ ” O’Neal said.

“The next night Jason Kelly called me and he’s like, ‘Hey, just wanted to make a little introduction. We’ll set up a zoom call sometime later this week to get your scholarship offer out to you.’ ”

With the change in the coaching regime, there wasn’t a need for negotiation.

“I had known University of Washington was where I wanted to go,” he said. “That’s where I wanted to go my first time through the recruiting process.”

O’Neal was offered and committed on the same phone call.

“For me, here was no reason to wait,” he said. “I knew I wanted to be a ‘Dawg.’ ”

O’Neal hopes to stick at catcher, but some of that is going to depend on his knee once he can get back on the field – and the other players the Huskies bring in.

“I’m prepared to compete, but I also know that I’ve played infield my whole life,” he said. “I can play outfield. And my bat’s good enough to get me in the lineup.”

For now, he will act as another coach for the Eagles – in between classes, rehabbing and doctor’s appointments.

“A lot of days I come in for the first 45 minutes of practice then I’m like, ‘Hey, Coach, I gotta take off. I got PT,’ or ‘Hey, Coach, I gotta take off, I gotta go work out.’

“But yeah, I’ll be around working with the catchers, trying to help out.”

Neither of his replacement candidates have varsity experience since that has been O’Neal’s job the past two years.

“It’s gonna be tough,” Aitken said. “We’re gonna have to move a few people around. It’s probably gonna take about three guys to get through a season behind the plate without having Easton back there.”

“I trust our coaches’ preparation for them that they’ll get the job done back there,” O’Neal said. “But as much as I can help them out back there, that’s what I want to do.”

O’Neal understands the lengthy rehab plan but wishes he could be on the field with his teammates.

“It’s really frustrating,” he said. “But I mean, not much I can do about it. Just got to look ahead.”

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