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  • EARL ANTHONY MEDFORD CLASSIC

    This Bill is due

    O'Neill has climbed to No. 2 in points but has yet to win on tour
  • The top of the point standings on the Lumber Liquidators Professional Bowlers Association Tour is a "Who's Who" of the sport.
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  • The top of the point standings on the Lumber Liquidators Professional Bowlers Association Tour is a "Who's Who" of the sport.
    Except for one guy. Bill O'Neill. He's a "Who's That?"
    "I guess you could say that," says O'Neill, a 27-year-old in his fourth full season on the tour. "Unless you're on TV, no one really knows who you are. This year, I'm making a little bit of a name for myself."
    O'Neill had an amazing college career, being chosen bowler of the year three times and All-American four times. When he joined the tour full time three years ago, he was rookie of the year.
    But without any victories and with only nominal success entering this season, his would be the name on the points list over which most people would scratch their heads. He's No. 2, behind only Wes Malott. Next in line are Brad Angelo, Walter Ray Williams Jr. and Parker Bohn III.
    To be sure, the headliners threw a party and O'Neill crashed it.
    He had a stellar first half of the season, making four championship rounds, which is second to Malott. He's been in two title matches and bowled competitively, only to lose first to Williams, then to Mike Machuga — the same player he lost to in his only other final in his rookie season.
    So does this count as a breakout season?
    "Absolutely," says O'Neill, "that's exactly what it is."
    Based on this season alone, one could label him the best player on tour yet to claim a title. Angelo had that distinction before triumphing in Week 2, ending a streak of 118 winless events.
    O'Neill's streak is 71 events entering today's Round of 64 in the Bayer Earl Anthony Medford Classic at Lava Lanes.
    Other players have longer streaks — Brian LeClair, who gained exempt status on Wednesday when Tommy Delutz Jr. left the tour with a knee injury, has gone 384 events without winning — but they aren't experiencing success similar to O'Neill's.
    The right-hander from Levittown, Pa., says it would be presumptuous to say he's the best player without a title.
    "There's quite a few guys out here who are pretty good," says O'Neill, naming, for instance, Chris Loschetter, who has come up empty 87 times. "I don't want to come out and say I'm better than him."
    If someone else put that label on him, O'Neill would take it as a compliment.
    "Obviously," he says, "you don't want to carry that title too long. But if people want to think of you as that, it's not a bad thing."
    O'Neill expected his career to take off following his dominance at Saginaw Valley State University in University Center, Mich. In the collegiate ranks, where all schools compete at the same level, he bowled opposite the likes of Mike Fagan, Sean Rash, Rhino Page and Loschetter, then watched them succeed on the PBA Tour.
    In his rookie season, O'Neill made it to match play 11 times, the TV finals once and earned $61,080.
    It translated to being named top rookie.
    "I don't know if people pay much attention to that award," he says. "It's nice to have, but it's not that big of a deal, I don't think."
    A meteoric rise didn't follow. O'Neill made only one show each of the next two years and had fewer earnings than his rookie season.
    Dissatisfied with his development, O'Neill put forth a concerted effort prior to this season.
    "I actually worked pretty hard on my game, harder than any season so far," he says. "I definitely had higher expectations at the start of this season. I don't know if I really expected to do this well, but I expected to do better than years past."
    His earnings of $57,750 is just under his career best with a half-season to go, and his per-game average of 223.84 trails only Bohn (225.46) and Malott (224.53).
    O'Neill began the season with five straight top-10 placings, then didn't crack that barrier again until last week in Reno, Nev., where he made the TV finals and finished fifth.
    His runner-up finishes were in Weeks 3 and 5, in Hammond, Ind., and Taylor, Mich., respectively, and sandwiched around a third, also in Taylor.
    "They've all been fairly close coming down to the end," O'Neill says of his title matches.
    In the first one this season, he needed to throw two strikes in the 10th to force all-time leading winner Williams to double. But a split ruined O'Neill's chance.
    "That was the best show I bowled all year," he says. He didn't fret over facing Williams but later thought, "It definitely would have been pretty cool to get my first win against him. You never know, maybe we'll face each other again."
    In his second title attempt, O'Neill needed a double to shut out Machuga. He got the first strike but left a 2-pin on the second. Machuga then doubled for the win.
    "Everything happens so fast on TV," says O'Neill. "It's hard to get comfortable. I'm starting to get used to the environment and more accustomed to what's going on there. I'm trying to build on the experience each time I'm on the show."
    O'Neill considers himself a consistent player, one who doesn't kill certain oil patterns and get killed on others.
    He hopes that bodes well here, where the Earl Anthony pattern is in use for the first time.
    O'Neill has had mixed success in Medford, doing well in qualifying two years ago but losing his first match. Last year, he was 57th. The previous two years, he was 23rd and 31st.
    "I like it here, and I like the center," says O'Neill. "My game is quite a bit different than in years past. I'm still pretty confident. I made the show last week and hadn't been higher than 50th before in Reno. We'll see what happens."
    Maybe what happens is he puts an end to the question, "Who's that?"
    Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 776-4479, or e-mail ttrower@mailtribune.com
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