Stepping Up to the Plate

Even keel Neel.

Despite the curve balls life has thrown, University of Memphis pitcher and center fielder Colton Neel has stepped up to the plate.

Being an integral part of the Tigers’ baseball team four years, Neel, an MUS graduate, is a player with “an even keel.”

“He never bounces around emotionally. He is a Steady Eddie. That is a trait that is hard to develop,” said Head Coach Daron Schoenrock.

Neel’s influence came on the field and off.

“Day in and day out, Colton impacted the clubhouse in several positive ways. On the field, Colton’s competitive instincts were contagious to others. You knew he was going to do whatever he could to help lead the Tigers toward a victory. Off the field, Colton’s personality allowed the team to sort of suppress the tension that may have risen if we were struggling. His attitude towards the game of baseball and the relationships he had with his teammates impacted us to simply have fun and play the game like we did growing up,” said senior pitcher Alex Smith.

“For the underclassmen, his attitude shed a positive light on others which allowed them to have easier transitions into Division 1 baseball.”

Finishing his senior season in May, it was his best with everything coming together after hard work at the ballpark throughout the year.

At the plate, Neel finished with a .291 batting average and going into May had a .380 average in American Athletic Conference games. He was fifth in the conference with 59 hits, ninth in runs batted in (32), fifth in doubles (15), tired for fourth with one triple and his four home runs were 10th.

His 203 at-bats ranked seventh, sacrifice bunts of 5 was fifth, 4 sacrifice flies was fourth. He was fifth in stolen bases with 11.

A left-handed closer, Neel had a 0.95 ERA and struck out 25 batters in 18 innings with a 91 mph with a 4-seam, 2-seam fast ball along with a slider and changeup. He had 10 saves, third most in the AAC.

Neel, 23, began playing baseball in church league in Memphis when he was a pre-schooler. His father Mark Neel was his first coach and told him he would one day be a college baseball player. Mark also coached him in tackle football for the Cordova Wolves from age 4 to 11.

“He didn’t want me to play (college) football. He said I was too small,” said Neel who is 5-9, 190.

In baseball his father would push him to swing harder and throw harder and run faster.

“He really didn’t understand the aspects of baseball to a certain degree. The last time he played baseball he was 13. He played third base because he was right handed. A guy hit a line drive at him and it broke his glove. He stopped play. He said, ‘I’m done with baseball.’ He didn’t have interest in baseball because he was a football player. Football was always his favorite sport.

“I didn’t realize until later if you swing as hard as you can in baseball every time you are not going to be successful. I learned maybe not to listen to him as much because he didn’t know what he was talking about,” said Colton.

Mark did teach his son to play the game 100 percent all the time.

“He would always say it’s not the size of you, it’s the size of your heart. I think that is something I have kept with me forever.”

Around his neck and close to his heart, Neel wears a cross with a Bible verse Colossians 3:23, “Whatever you do work at it with all your heart as working for the Lord not for men.”

“A lot of people get tattoos. This cross is a constant reminder. I always hear it clinking and I can feel it. I play with it,” said Colton.

What it reminds him of is his father.

Mark Neel went to the doctor because he was having back pain. He was diagnosed with his 10th kidney stone. He would have surgery to remove it.

It was considered to be a routine surgery. However there were complications that made Mark Neel septic. Two days after surgery and six days after his 45th birthday, he died on May 22, 2007. Colton was 11.

“That was something that shocked all of us,” said Colton, even now tearful remembering.

“I lost my best friend. I lost my role model. It was something that hit our family really, really hard. He was the leader of our family. He is someone I looked up to every day and wanted to be like. I still want to be like him. I try to be more like him.”

“He was a great person, a great dad, a great friend. He was a friend to everybody. No one knew Mark Neel without knowing he was a friend. You can tell that by the amount of people that showed up at his funeral. We planned on 500. I would say close to 2,000 came. I was 11 and it didn’t hit me then. You hear the question what do you want your funeral to look like. I think that is a great picture of what kind of man he was. He was someone who was always trying to help people, always wanted to be a friend to the next person.”

Colton chose Colossians 3:23 because it reflects his dad and the values he instilled into him.

“He was a big guy on heart. That is something that stuck with me. I play the game with a lot of heart,” said Neel. “I am really tenacious with a lot of effort. I feel that is the best way to honor him and honor our Lord Jesus Christ. That is something I try to do every day.

“I have a competitive spirit that a lot of people I don’t want to say don’t have but maybe don’t bring to the table every at bat, every outing. I don’t think there is a lot to me talent wise that is better than the next guy but the effort and tenacity I play the game with is my biggest strength.

“My competitive nature over everything has been the key to my success this year. That is how you maximize your abilities. There is a huge mental side to baseball that people don’t realize if they don’t know baseball. Competing your butt off every bat, every pitch that is something that increases your abilities above everything else.

“The inspiration is flat simple, I like winning. Winning is fun. This team has a lot of fun when we do win. We all love each other. I think it shows on the field. We’ve had countless come-from-behind wins. That is stuff that only comes when you have a tight team, close-knit group, relationships that tie you close to your brothers. That is going to last a lot longer than any trophy or medal. In order to get that trophy and medal you have to have relationships that are going to carry you there.”

Neel described the chemistry on the 2019 team as “phenomenal. I’ve been on some teams that don’t have that great chemistry. This team is not one of those teams. Every single guy has bought into what we are trying to do.

“I was talking to Coach (Clay) Greene our hitting coach and he said there a few games you can point b ack and remember but for the most part the thing that you are going to miss is being around the guys and being on the road. That has honestly been the best part for me getting to know these guys and relationships.”

Winning first started with his father.

“I don’t think there is a day that goes by that I don’t think about him,” said Colton, who was given the cross with his father’s initials by his fiance Kenzie Sweeney. They will be married Sept. 14.

Colton called his father trustworthy, honest, hard worker.

“Those are three things he taught without teaching me. I saw that every day. I never saw a person work harder and love more than him. He was constantly telling me that he loved me and he was proud of me. I think that is very important because I know a lot of guys who have fathers who didn’t get that encouragement.

“When you are a son to a dad that is one of those things you have got to hear. I think it’s real important of the development of yourself because that is your role model, the main dude you are trying to play for and impress. I liked making him proud and him constantly telling me. That showed me he loved me.

“One of the things I love doing was making my dad proud. His constant showing that he was proud of me was something that pushed me every day.

“I miss being with him. I miss the relationship that we had. It was a really good one. He was always having fun and joking around.”

Colton remembers the weekends when it was just him and his dad staying home because of baseball tournaments and his mother Stacey taking his sisters Mackenzie and Madison to the beach.

“We would have a guys weekend. Those are some of the most fun we’ve ever had. We fished, hunted. We did the whole nine yards.”

Talking about his father after his death was difficult.

He bottled it up. When the family brought it up, they would cry.

“It’s something you don’t want to relive every day and talk about all the time. For awhile it was really hard for me. I tried to stay away from the subject because I couldn’t do it without tearing up and crying. I didn’t tell a lot of people about my dad when I was younger. A select few I would talk to.

“As I have gotten older, time has definitely healed. Now we love telling stories and enjoy talking about him. The person I talk to most about it is Kenzie. I can always talk to her about it. Now as I look back I learned so much from him, hearing stories.”

Mark worked in computer sales for eight years and was the company’s top salesman. He became a land developer, developing neighborhoods in Lakeland.

He was president and CEO of Gameday Baseball and First Tennessee Fields. He was a philanthropist.

His father’s sales experience is one reason why Colton wants to be in sales. He graduated in May with a degree in marketing management and is employed with Gentleman Orthopedic Solutions, a medical device sales company in Memphis.

When he entered the University of Memphis, his goals were to get an education, be “a great college baseball player” and “hopefully meet my wife.”

He met Kenzie in kindergarten.

“We were quote, unquote boyfriend, girlfriend. We are not high school sweethearts, not school-age sweethearts but kindergarten sweethearts. The first time we dated was fifth grade. I don’t know if you call that dating. I was her first kiss, she was my first kiss.”

Since his sophomore year at Memphis they have only dated each other.

“When I got to college I knew that Kenzie (a Tiger cheerleader) was the girl I was going to marry. That is something that was a change in my life. It was an eye-opening experience but a freeing feeling. It’s hard to believe the girl I was going to tie myself to the rest of my life is a freeing feeling.

“There is not that constant, ‘I have to go talk to this girl or this girl.’ I knew I was going to be with her. She is so great, so awesome. I can come away from baseball and she’s always there, a constant in my life that I love.”

Her father Kerry Sweeney coached Colton when he played on the Memphis Tigers from 12 to high school graduation.

“I don’t know how it works up there (heaven), he (Mark) is an angel and put a lot of people in my life that I can look to as father figures.”

Another father figure has been Cordova Wolves youth football coach Tommy Ferrari who coached him after Mark died. His son Hayden Ferrari, a former Tigers linebacker, is going to be in Neel’s weeding.

Kyle Finney, who coached him at Memphis University School in football and baseball is also a father figure. Another is Guy Durham who coached him on the Collierville Dragons competitive baseball team when he was 9 and 10. Durham’s son Chris Durham was a redshirt junior pitcher for Memphis this season. Another father figure has been Chris Stewart, his pitching coach at MUS.

Neel calls them “constant role models.”

“All these guys were at pivotal point as a young man. You learn a lot of lessons during those times,” he said. “All those men taught me lessons.”

Calling the 2019 season “a great year,” Neel had memorable games throughout his college including Cincinnati his freshman year. This season when he came in as a closer with the Tigers leading South Florida 1-0.

The tying run was on third and winning run on second. Neel ended the threat.

“There is no better thrill than that. I struck him out and we won the game. Closing has been really fun for me.”

In the conference tournament in Clearwater, Florida, as a sophomore he pitched three scoreless innings and won the game because he hit a walk-off at the end.

“That was a fun game. I have had more than a few,” he said.

His wedding may have a game day feel. Tigers catcher Jason Santana will be his best man. Third baseman Cale Hennemann and Smith will also be in his wedding.

“I’m beyond excited to be apart of his wedding and watch him marry the woman he immensely loves,” said Smith.

Through baseball Neel has learned that he is more resilient than he thought he was.

“Baseball is one of those sports where you are not always going to succeed. You’re not always going to have fun. My freshman year I did not have fun.”

Neel was a part-time player his freshman season.

“It wasn’t every day I’m writing his name in the 2-hole,” said Schoenrock, who did this season. “He struggled as a freshman like a lot of freshmen do.”

Neel’s fun meter jumped his sophomore season.

“I think it’s the ability to grind it out. Get your moments and take advantage of the moments when you get them,” said Neel, who was named to the conference all-tournament team that season.

This season Neel pitched “lights out” said Schoenrock. “We probably didn’t use him enough as a pitcher his 3-year span up until this year.”

As he and pitching coach Russ McNickel watched Neel throw in fall ball and preseason, Schoenrock told McNickel, “’We have to use Colton. His stuff is too good.’ He throws three pitches for strikes. He throws the ball 90 mph left handed, has a good changeup, good slider. I can just kick myself in the butt for not pitching him more. We were trying to get him so ingrained into winning an outfield job and being the hitter that he is now. We were kind of afraid to make him balance both areas. It turns out the more we have asked him to do on either side has helped the other side.

“It’s just relaxed him. He loves to pitch. We started out the year if we don’t get him in 15 games as a reliever shame on us.” Two weeks into the season they changed it to 20.

Before the season ended, Schoenrock said Neel’s 2019 success came from different sources.

“I think this year has been a combination of experience he has gotten all at bats and his ability. Now he is showing us who we thought he could be or it’s Colton going, ‘Ok, I have a good life. I have met the girl I am going to marry. I am getting a college degree. I am playing with a group of seniors I have become real close with. Life could not get any better than it is right now. He is relaxed. He is playing lights out on both sides of the ball.”

Neel set up success for Hunter Goodman, a Freshman All-American who scored a conference-high 51 runs, had a conference-high 78 hits and whose 67 RBI were also most in the AAC. Leadoff hitter Ben Brooks and Neel were often driven in by Goodman. Brook scored 43 runs, fourth in the conference.

“Colton’s been an integral part of Hunter’s success.,” said Schoenrock.

Neel had an on-base percentage of .393, slugging percentage of .433 and 0-1 pitching record.

As a junior he batted .220, scored 20 runs and had 19 RBI. He had 39 hits including 8 doubles, 2 home runs and was second on the team in stolen bases with 5. He pitched four times, finishing with a 4.76 ERA in 5.23 innings with five strikeouts. His record was 0-0.

In 2017 he batted .238 with 34 hits in 143 at bats. He scored 26 runs, hit 6 doubles, 1 triple and 19 RBI. His ERA was 4.38 with a 1-1 record. He fanned 11.

In 2016 he hit .183 in 16 starts, scored 8 runs, hit 2 doubles, 1 triple and 10 RBI. He pitched 23 1/3 innings with a 3.47 ERA and finished 0-1. He struck out 21 batters.

At MUS, Neel was first team all-state in 2014 and named the Owls’ Best All Around Athlete. He had a 2.93 ERA and batted .319. In 2013 he led the Owls to a state runner-up finish.

He was a finalist for Mr. Football in Division 2-AA as a senior in 2014. He rushed for 20 touchdowns, 1,184 yards and also had three TD receptions in 10 games. He finished with 62 career touchdowns, the Owls’ all-time leader.

Schoenrock began recruiting Neel when he was at MUS.

He was then and is now impressed with his maturity.

“He has been an absolute blessing to see how mature he is. He is one of the most mature kids I have ever coached,” said Schoenrock.

Mark’s death forced Colton to grow up quickly..

“He immediately became the man of the house at 11 years old. I have to look after my sisters, look after Mom. He still has that ingrained in him. He still worries about his mom. He is concerned that his mom is in good health, good shape and that his sisters are happy in what they are doing,” said Schoenrock.

Mackenzie Neel Conway graduated from Mississippi State with degree in interior design. Madison Neel is a student at the Chicago Institute of Art.

“Obviously you lose the head of the household it makes the family grow stronger and it did with that family especially as abruptly as it happened,” said Schoenrock.

“I didn’t know Colton at 11. I remember hearing about it early in his high school career when it was obvious he was going to be a college player and we started the recruiting process. Ever since the first time I met him he has been such a mature young man. I am sure some of that has to do at the age when he lost his dad suddenly.”

Colton’s faith helped him deal with his father’s death.

“He walks it and he lives it. There is time when you lose your dad at that age you question. He was grounded in that point. He resorted to prayer. He went through tough times like everybody,” said Schoenrock.

“People that surrounded that family and encompassing of prayer probably did change Colton’s faith. He is not perfect and not one of those guys in the locker room and none of these coaches are but he is a guy you want your daughter to date and a big part of that he is a believer in Christ.”

Neel said accepting “Jesus as my Lord and Savior would be the No. 1” turning point of his life. His mother led him to Christ when he was 9.

Smith said, “Unfortunately I was never able to meet his dad. However the stories Colton has shared with me show that he carries Mr. Neel’s memory and name with honor.

“I firmly believe through Colton’s upbringing he has grown into a man of faith and integrity which helped me many times in our college years. Often when sharing stories about life, Colton would tell me about the power in prayer. This impacted my relationship with the Lord. It was a privilege to share four years of memories with Colton. I look to experience many more in our future.”

Neel’s faith transcended to the field.

“Being a baseball player is tough. It’s not fun sometimes. When you go 0-for-4 two days you feel like you are the smallest person on the planet. When I matured as a Christian I could step away from earthly things. I could step away form the baseball field and say it doesn’t matter in God’s eyes. He loves you and accepts you for who you are. It doesn’t matter if you go 4- for- 4 and four home runs or 0- for- 4 and four strikeouts. That is something that helps me each day by that I play sports and anything in life.”

He and his family went to Grace Evangelical Church when Mark was living and then attended Hope Presbyterian.

Early into college, Neel said he felt like he was away from God.

“I wasn’t talking to God daily and reading my Bible daily.”

The most he has matured in college is knowing every day he needs that as a Christian and as a person he said.

“Every day I have a quiet time and talk to God and pray before every day starts. It’s something that helps you.”

Neel has looked up to team chaplain John Crosby, Reformed University Fellowship minister at Memphis.“I love John Crosby. He is a great guy.”

Neel wants to reflect his faith through actions.

“I hope people would look at the way I treat others and play the game. Hopefully they would know I am doing it for the glory of God and that I am not doing it for me. I am doing it for God. I am a Christian.

“Jesus is our Lord and Savior. He laid down his life that we would live a life that means something. Having my dad die at an early age, I would love to see him one more time and just talk to him.

“Without Jesus I would never get to see him again. Jesus represents that hope that we get something after this life that is better than any of us could ever imagine. We get to see our loved ones again.”