Neal ‘not looking forward’ to facing former team |

Neal ‘not looking forward’ to facing former team

summit daily news
Summit County, CO Colorado
Devon O'Neil

During Jeff Neal’s two years as head coach of the Summit High School girls basketball team, he tried to get his squad to believe it could beat anybody. Didn’t matter if the opponent was the No. 1 team in the state. Didn’t matter if one of the nation’s top players would be competing against the Tigers.

“There’s nobody you can’t beat,” Neal would tell his girls.

But that’s not all. In the time Neal coached here the Golden Demons established themselves as an untouchable force in the 4A Jeffco League. His “fear no one” mantra applied particularly to the girls in maroon from the town on the Foothills’ western edge.

“Why shouldn’t Summit be the team to knock Golden off its perch?” Neal would say to his players.

The upset never materialized during Neal’s tenure at SHS, and so Tuesday night’s game between the Tigers and the Demons, at Golden, presents a deliciously ironic scenario. On that night, Neal will be attempting to protect Golden’s current 33-game league winning streak as the No. 2-ranked Demons’ first-year head coach. He’ll do so with one of the nation’s top high school guards, junior Cassie Lambrecht, who leads the state with 25 points per game, as well as the second half of Golden’s backcourt ” former Summit star Samantha Neal, Jeff’s daughter.

Neal said he and Sam, who averages 12.5 ppg and is among the state leaders in assists, haven’t spoken about the upcoming matchup this winter, save for a couple occasions.

“The only thing we both said is we’re not looking forward to it very much,” the coach said by phone this week.

Explaining that statement, he added, “You can imagine that we have mixed feelings. I’m glad for (Summit) ” it seems like they’ve overachieving ” but it’s hard to come back and coach against kids that you’ve coached before.”

When he’s not a father or a coach, Jeff Neal is a businessman. His profession, in fact, was a major reason he elected to leave Summit County last spring and move his family to Golden. He can deal with whatever feelings arise on Tuesday night; that part doesn’t worry him.

As a dad, however, he’s concerned for his daughter.

“I’m not looking forward to it for her more than anything,” he said of Sam, a junior who started from the day she stepped on the floor as a freshman at Summit, and who led the Tigers in scoring last season. “I don’t think Sam was ever called a traitor, but I know that there was a little ribbing and teasing. But it was a family decision more than anything.”

The gears began turning last February. Knowing of Neal’s professional situation ” he was driving to and from Denver four times a week for business ” and knowing Sam would benefit from additional exposure to college scouts’ eyes, the outgoing Golden coach alerted Jeff of her plans to resign at the end of the season.

Neal weighed all his options, agonizing over the decision before opting to shave a few thousand feet off his hometown.

“I never felt (like a defector),” he says now. “I didn’t feel like I had to share it with the rest of the world, but there were enough non-basketball reasons for us making this move that I never felt like I just bailed out on Summit.”

“We viewed it as he was taking off and doing what he needed to do for his career,” said Dylan Hollingsworth, an assistant under Neal last season who took the helm of Summit’s program this year. “I think it was a good move for him personally.”

Hollingsworth is in an intricate position himself in the coming days. His team, which stands at 7-11 overall and 4-2 in the Jeffco League, likely needs to win one of its final three games to earn a berth in the postseason. All three are tough matchups against winning opponents, none more so than Tuesday night’s showdown.

“We can’t afford to focus on that game any more than the others,” Hollingsworth said.

As for any on-court storylines between Summit’s players and their former teammate, Hollingsworth said: “There’s some girls that are looking forward to the opportunity to play against Sam. It’s not some sort of rivalry or hate thing, it’s just an opportunity to play against a player they used to play with.

“The big deal is we’re playing Golden, we’re not playing Jeff,” the SHS coach said.

Either way, it figures to be a difficult task. Going into their game tonight against Conifer, the Demons (17-3, 6-0 Jeffco) are averaging 74 points per game ” they’ve scored 90 or more three times this year ” and have fully adjusted to Neal’s run-n-gun attack, which marks a polar opposite to Golden’s old approach, a “walk it up, pound it in” style, as Neal described it.

While Neal doesn’t expect Golden’s student body to behave any differently for this game than it would for another, he did say the Demon players who were there last year are well aware of the night’s significance.

“The Golden girls have been ribbing us and counting down to this game,” the coach said with a laugh, then he caught himself. “I shouldn’t say ‘Golden girls’ ” we’re part of that now.”

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