Although he knew his playing days were probably numbered, Neal was not ready to give up the game he grew up loving in Charlotte, and had played since he was 4 years old.
Thus began Neal’s second career in baseball, this time as a coach.
“Baseball is a huge part of my life and it has dictated a lot of where I have been and all of the things that I have been able to accomplish,” Neal said. “Basically, baseball is in my blood. I don’t think I could not be around the game in any way, shape or form. I will continue to coach.”
Before deciding to become a coach, Neal, now 30, had a successful baseball career playing second base at East Mecklenburg High School and then Wingate University, 2004-2007. He played in more than 200 games at Wingate and finished his career with a .294 batting average and 87 RBI.
Unfortunately for Neal, he did not hear his name called in the 2007 MLB draft and was forced to work out on his own before the Silver Sox signed him as an undrafted free agent prior to the 2008 season. Neal’s professional career would last only half a year, as the Silver Sox released him at the midpoint of the season.
Neal moved back to North Carolina shortly after his release.
“When I got home to Charlotte I started looking for full-time jobs,” Neal said. “I felt like I needed to start my life.
“I figured baseball was done, at least playing-wise, so I needed to find something to do with my life.”
Shortly after arriving back in his home state, Neal heard of a coaching position at East Chapel Hill High School through one of his longtime friends who lived in the area. Neal immediately moved to Chapel Hill and began coaching the junior varsity baseball team at East Chapel Hill.
Neal already had experience coaching and teaching the game of baseball. When he lived in Charlotte, Neal was the head instructor at On Deck Academy, where he would coach teams during the summer and give private lessons to youth baseball players in the area.
Once he started coaching at East Chapel Hill, Neal also began giving private baseball lessons on the weekends.
It was during those teachng sessions that Neal got the idea to start a series of baseball camps in the summer, now known as Chapel Hill Baseball, which hundreds of youth from the Chapel Hill-Carrboro community now sign up for every summer.
Chapel Hill Baseball officially was created in the summer of 2010.
But after his fourth year at East Chapel Hill, Neal decided he wanted to move on. He began looking for a job in sales, perhaps something more serious than teaching and coaching JV baseball at a local high school.
However, after interviewing for several jobs, including a sales position with the Durham Bulls, Neal failed to find anything that piqued his interest.
A new start
That same summer, in 2013, the head coaching position for the Carrboro High School varsity baseball team opened.
“I had a couple of parents from Carrboro that recruited me because they had known I had been coaching at East Chapel Hill, and they knew about my camps and private lessons,” Neal said. “They really wanted a younger coach to come over that was really about the team and about instructing.
“It felt good to be recruited, so I went back and started coaching at Carrboro.”
Currently, Neal is in his second season as the varsity head coach at Carrboro.
The Jaguars were 6-7 heading into Friday’s game with Bartlett-Yancey, but, despite the sub-.500 overall record, the Jaguars were tied with Jordan-Matthews High School at the top of the 2A Mid-State standings with a 3-1 conference record.
“We have the team, the ability and the talent to win our conference,” Neal said. “But we are very much a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde team.
“We are still trying to figure out how to be consistent and concentrate for a full seven innings — focus on every pitch and every inning and then we can be a really good team.”
Since moving to Carrboro, Neal’s Chapel Hill Baseball summer camps now take place at Carrboro High School. Last year, he offered a camp for high school players for the first time, which will be available again this August, in addition to the camps for players ages 5-14 that have taken place for the past five years.
Chad Yow – one of Neal’s former teammates at Wingate and now the baseball coach at West Stanly High School – has helped Neal as an instructor during the summer for Chapel Hill Baseball. He he has seen first-hand the impact Neal and Chapel Hill Baseball can make on the local youth baseball community.
“Coach Neal has an incredible amount of experience in the game of baseball and runs lessons in a fun way that engages players and motivates them to become better ball players,” Yow said.
But more than just wins and losses, conference championships or private lessons, Neal said his main focus is on changing the way baseball is perceived in the community, starting with Carrboro High School.
“One of my bigger goals in the grand scheme of things is to change the culture of Carrboro baseball itself,” said Neal. “I want to change the community, because where I am from we grew up playing baseball and we were very good at playing the game and knowing the game. I want Carrboro and Chapel Hill to grow up and be that.”
“Luckily, there are a lot of travel teams that are popping up for younger kids and hopefully my camps can help bring a fundamental approach to teaching the game and also bring a fun learning environment to where the kids really enjoy coming every day.”
Neal accepted a full-time sales job this past October, but still has every intention to coach at Carrboro and maintain Chapel Hill Baseball for as long as he is able.
The journey he has taken since being released from professional baseball in 2008 is not one that Neal could have envisioned seven years ago, but in a way he feels right where he belongs.
“It’s crazy to me to just think of where it all came from,” Neal said. “I never set out on this path, but it just came to be. I really do enjoy instructing the game of baseball — the mental game, the physical game and the fundamentals.”
“It’s baseball and I love being in it and being around it. I truly wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Kegan Lowe, a student manager for UNC baseball, is a senior journalism major from Greensboro