In 1999 and 2000, Neal, then an assistant at Ninety Six, saw both teams play for state titles in different classifications.
Neal, now the new Hornets’ head coach, is tasked with returning Aiken to those heights. The work has already started, but with South Carolina High School League teams holding practices in helmets for the first time this season Friday, the time is now.
“They’ve been down a little bit, so there’s pressure to get it back,” Neal said. “But we’re coming in with the idea it’s time to get it back.”
Neal takes over for Carey Johnson, who led the team to two state runner-up finishes and three more semifinal appearances. But the program has struggled recently, with the 2-9 mark in 2012 the worst record of Johnson’s tenure. In April, Johnson stepped down but remained as athletic director.
Enter Neal, who guided McCormick to the 2012 Class A Division II state championship game in only his second year at the school. Neal graduated in 1983 from Ninety Six, where he won a state title his senior year.
When he arrived at Aiken, Neal first wanted to increase the numbers. He’s done that, with close to 70 players on the roster with running back Nakeem Spann among them. Neal will call the plays on offense.
Defensively, Neal has Brian Mabry as the coordinator in the 4-3 system. Mabry was previously Neal’s defensive coordinator at McCormick.
There will be some adjustments, moving from Class A to AAAA, where the realistic goal is to have enough depth so most players aren’t asked to play on both sides. Neal isn’t finding any negatives about his current spot.
“The kids are working their rear ends off and the coaches are working hard,” Neal said. “I got nothing to complain about.”