A security guard’s two biggest nightmares on the Panhandle are a pair of petite teenage girls bearing the last name O’Neal.
One is a 5-foot-5 blonde named Katie, a senior at Freeport High. The other, Megan, Katie’s younger sister by a year, a 5-foot-5 brunette.
They cut a deal once, with the head basketball coach, Bruce Stewart, and the security guards at Northwest Florida State College. Signed a waiver and everything.
They could shoot hoops whenever they wanted, the agreement read, under two conditions: They didn’t sue the gym if they somehow injured themselves shooting on an empty basketball court, and they would pay for any damages caused.
It was perfect, until in November of 2011, Stewart passed away from a brain tumor. The deal evidently went with him.
One day, Katie and Megan went to shoot after school, as they always had, and found the doors locked shut with a piece of plywood. As if that weren’t enough, they returned again, and chains had been added to the defense system.
Then they tried Destin Middle, and before long “we were kicked out of there, too,” Katie griped. “For whatever reason.”
Then Lewis Middle. They got booted from there, too.
Then they tried their church, but there were frequent events being hosted, and chairs were constantly in the way.
“We asked if we could move them but they said ‘No,”’ Katie recalled. “There was no place for us to shoot.”
To be clear, there was still a place for them to shoot. By this point, Katie was enrolled at Fort Walton Beach High School and Megan was a standout for Ruckel Middle.
There was just no place for them to shoot extra.
“It’s unbelievable. It’s everyday, Saturday and Sunday,” Freeport coach Mike Myrick said. “They’re finding a gym somewhere to shoot a basketball. That’s just their routine and that’s what they’ve gotten into. They probably shoot 300-400 times a day. That’s what people don’t see and understand is how much time they’re putting into it. They put the time in.”
The O’Neals have never been much for mediocrity.
Megan got the itch for basketball when she was told, in the fifth grade, that she was too small to be a serious player. She’s now averaging 20.1 points per game and has hung 30 on three separate opponents this year.
Katie felt it in seventh grade, when she got promoted to the Ruckel varsity team.
“Just from watching and comparing myself to the other girls,” she said, “I knew I loved basketball.”
And basketball has loved them back.
Katie is Freeport’s leading scorer, putting up 21.8 points per game for the 14-2 Bulldogs.
Together, they are averaging nearly as many points per game (41.9) as entire opposing teams (44.7).
“Being on the same team, it’s fun because I see different things on the court,” Katie, the point guard, said. “So when I see Megan I don’t care how far she is. Whenever she’s at the volleyball line, I’m like ‘Go ahead and shoot it.’ Because we practice together, I know exactly what she can do.”
And, oh, do they practice together.
Their first hoop was a flimsy thing that their father put up in the front yard. To shoot a 3-pointer, they would have to stand in the road, so they shot free throws. An obscene amount of free throws, thousands upon thousands of them.
Soon, though, they grew strong enough to hoist three-pointers, which was when they began seeking gyms with real hoops on courts with legitimate dimensions.
Their mother, Krissie, was good friends with Stewart, and they would walk around the old Northwest Florida State gym while her girls practiced: 20 made three-pointers from five different spots on the court, followed by 50-100 made free throws.
“We probably shoot so much it’s unhealthy,” Megan said.
It is likely more unhealthy for their parents, “professional rebounders,” Megan joked. But it has paid off in staggering dividends.
It’s not uncommon to watch a Freeport game and hear cheering for the O’Neal sisters — from the opposing fan section.
“Other teams have wound up cheering for them,” Freeport assistant coach and guidance counselor Jessica Obert said. “The guys will be like “Ohhh no she didn’t!” They didn’t believe a girl could do that. And it’s not even a girls shot. It’s like a male’s shot.”
There are often times Megan doesn’t realize how far away she is from the basket. Take an instance last year, in a game against Niceville, when she was unknowingly standing nearly out of bounds, in the coach’s box next to Eagle coach David Day.
Katie flipped her a pass. Megan caught it and shot without a second thought. Three points.
“In a game I guess it’s just the adrenaline,” Megan said. “I don’t even have to think about it. I just shoot it and I feel comfortable with it because I’ve done it so many times. I feel it when I release it and I’m just like that’s in.”
“That’s her range,” Myrick confirmed. “Megan will look over once in awhile at me and ask if she can shoot it. She has the green light to shoot it from wherever she feels comfortable.”
This will be the last season the O’Neals play together in a Freeport uniform. After this year, Katie will be off to the University of West Florida to become an Argonaut.
Megan, who is currently receiving interest from the University of Florida, South Florida, Boston, North Florida, and Tulane, among others, hinted that there’s a good chance she follows Katie to UWF.
Myrick, though, tries not to think about it.
Said the coach: “I’m trying to enjoy what I have.