- September 11, 2019
Alina Almonte-O’Neill remembers the exact moment when she felt as though her world was crumbling under her feet.
It was the fall of 2017, and the then freshman was taking part in her first-ever varsity game for the Bishop Moore Catholic High School volleyball team.
In the second set of the match, Almonte-O’Neill went to set the ball, but one of her teammates failed to cover, so she dived in to save the point. What happened next was a nightmare for any player, as her right knee popped out.
“I heard the pop and I felt the pain — I immediately dropped to the floor and I was crying and I was slapping the floor so hard,” said Almonte-O’Neill, a junior now at Foundation Academy after transferring over. “They wouldn’t stop the game, because it was a game in process, so I tried to crawl out of people’s way until someone had to shank the ball over — we lost that point, but it stopped the game. I used all the power I had inside to crawl out.”
The sound that Almonte-O’Neill heard was that of her ACL and meniscus tearing, and thus began a long road to recovery that would test her physical, mental and emotional fortitude.
The sport of volleyball seemingly fell into Almonte-O’Neill’s life out of the blue.
In the fourth grade, Almonte-O’Neill — who will tell you that she is a competitive person — was trying to decide what sport to play. She dabbled in a couple of sports at the local YMCA, but it was volleyball that drew her in — though she never imagined where it would lead her.
“I promise you I never thought I was going to play club, and I never thought that I was going to be right here,” Almonte-O’Neill said.
During those early days with the Five Star Volleyball Club, Almonte-O’Neill transitioned from role to role, playing every position on the court — including middle blocker, which was quite a challenge for a player who stands at only 5-foot-2.
That wouldn’t be the case for long, however, as Almonte-O’Neill eventually established herself in the setter position that has become her trademark spot. Though, as she will tell you, it took some time to get settled in.
“The first time I started playing setter I was frustrated with myself a lot, because my sets weren’t as clean as other setters — they were always doubles or they would never get to the position where I was supposed to set,” Almonte-O’Neill said.
Luckily Almonte-O’Neill wasn’t alone, as coaches and hours of practice helped her hone her skills to the point where she became a go-to player. It’s also what helped the Dr. Phillips resident land a spot on the Bishop Moore volleyball team.
On October 25, 2017 — around two months after her injury — Almonte-O’Neill had surgery to repair the damage in her knee.
It was one of the biggest challenges she had ever faced. For her, it felt like the end.
“From that moment on I was like, ‘Volleyball is over for me — I’m not coming out of this,” Almonte-O’Neill said. “My mom was one of the ones encouraging me, ‘No, don’t give up, this is just the beginning … you’ll get right back up.’ And that’s what I did, I got right back up and I’m here.”
Almonte-O’Neill wouldn’t give up — instead she focused on improving her strength and endurance during months of rehab to get back onto the court.
It was a time-consuming process, and it held her off the court until she returned to her club team last year.
“The first time that I came back to play, I’d say, was the most difficult day of my life,” Almonte-O’Neill said. “I wasn’t the same — I wasn’t the same player and I was just scared that it was going to happen again.”
The rehabbing that Almonte-O’Neill has done over the last year has paid off, as the first-year Foundation student has really made a name for herself.
Almonte-O’Neill arrived during the summer and participated in the open gyms held by head coach Vicki Veloz.
In her first game Almonte-O’Neill racked up 30 assists, 14 digs, three kills and four aces as if she had been with the program this whole time. And then in the Lions’ follow-up game Almonte-O’Neill once again dominated with 27 assists, 10 digs, and three kills. Though she’s been a big part of the Lions’ early 3-1 start to the season, Almonte-O’Neill said that she wouldn’t be able to do what she does without the girls and coaches on her team.
“I just knew that I’m one player and one player can do so much for a team, so I knew if I gave it my all — and all the players gave it their all — then we would be a good team,” Almonte-O’Neill said. “Right now, I would say this is the best team I’ve had — our connection as a team is so tight, we’re like a family.”