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O’Neal ends career on own terms
Mahlena O’Neal 2
Ceres High grad Mahlena O’Neal made 143 starts at catcher while suiting up for the University of Georgia softball team for three-plus seasons.

Mahlena O’Neal has opted to not return for a fifth and final season with the University of Georgia softball program.

The Ceres High School grad was granted an additional year of eligibility after the 2020 spring season was shortened by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

 “It wasn’t an easy decision,” O’Neal said. “I had hard conversations with my parents. I just felt like it was time to move on. I want to figure out who I am without softball. Softball has been my priority since the age of five. That’s what I’m known for. I’m excited to live my own life—find out what my other interests, hobbies and passions are.”

O’Neal suited up for Georgia for three-plus seasons.

She made 143 starts at catcher.

Her fielding percentage of .996 ranks second in team history.

“I’m extremely grateful to Coach Lu (Harris-Champer) and the University of Georgia for the opportunity they gave me,” she said. “I was so lucky I was able to go to school and do what I love. I had a great time there.”

O’Neal totaled 99 hits, 17 homers, 21 doubles, 91 RBIs and 38 runs in 174 career games.

She threw out 26 would-be base stealers.

She made just three errors.

O’Neal had three homers, four doubles, eight RBIs and six runs in 2020.

She had five homers, six doubles, 36 RBIs and 14 runs in 2019. O’Neal ranked second in the SEC with 11 sacrifice bunts.

She had eight homers, five doubles, 34 RBIs and 11 runs in 2018.

She had one homer, six doubles, 13 RBIs and seven runs in 2017.

O’Neal’s teams at Georgia amassed a 148-60 overall record, qualified for the NCAA Tournament four times and advanced to the Women’s College World Series once.

“I worked very hard,” O’Neal said. “I made some really great friends. It (being a student-athlete at the college level) is the toughest thing I’ve had to do. The most challenging part was being away from my family for so long. But it helped me become independent. I had to grow up and make decisions that were best for me.”

O’Neal will continue to attend Georgia as a student.

The 2020-21 school year will start on Aug. 20.

“It’s going to be an adjustment,” she said. “I’m going to miss softball. Softball was a place I could go to and forget about other things. The routine helped me with organization and getting stuff done.”

O’Neal will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in sociology next spring.

“If you return for a fifth year, you have to have an internship or help out with the team,” O’Neal said. “I’m going to do an internship. I’ve never had a job. I want to do something with underprivileged kids.”

O’Neal played softball from age, 5-22.

She filled a major role while leading Ceres High’s varsity softball program to 85 victories, one section championship, three Western Athletic titles and four playoff appearances from 2013-2016.

She was selected to the Cal-Hi Sports All-State Super Elite Second Team and Medium Schools First Team her senior year.

She earned FloSoftball Second-Team All-American honors.

She was voted WAC Most Valuable Player.

She batted .479 from the plate with nine homers, 12 doubles, 43 RBIs and nine runs during her final season with Ceres High.

In 113 career games, O’Neal hit .462 (171-for-370) with 21 home runs, five triples, 37 doubles, 147 RBIs and 50 runs.

She struck out just 15 times.

O’Neal threw out 31 of 48 base runners on steal attempts.

“Seventeen years is a long time to be doing something,” she said. “I’m very happy with how my career played out. I love softball. I’ll still go to games and follow the sport.”