FAIRMONT, W.Va. — Similar to so many of his student-athlete peers, Fairmont Senior quarterback Connor Neal cycled through a daily after-school routine of going to practice and churning through his night’s homework before turning on the TV or flipping open his laptop to stream his go-to show. No Netflix password nor HBO GO account was required, however, just a series of discs with clips illustrating an array of blitzes and coverages.
“I watch film every night for at least an hour probably,” said Neal, who led the Polar Bears to the Class AA state title after back-to-back runner-up finishes in 2016 and 2017. “The hard part was finding teams that do something similar to what we do; there aren’t a lot of teams in high school that line up in empty or spread.”
True, Fairmont Senior’s air-raid offense, which lit it up for 49.7 points and 433.3 yards a game, is a bit of an anomaly, but then again so is a signal caller of Neal’s caliber. The FSHS senior set the state ablaze this season as he threw for a single-season program record 3,620 yards and 46 touchdowns while completing 211-of-282 passes in leading the Polar Bears to an undefeated season at 14-0, one in which they didn’t trail for a single second.
In recognition of Neal’s historic campaign, he’s been named the winner of the 2018 Kennedy Award, given to the state’s top high school player, by the West Virginia Sports Writers Association.
Finishing behind Neal in the voting were Spring Valley’s Graeson Malashevich, Doddridge County’s Hunter America and Capital’s Kerry Martin Jr.
Neal becomes the third-ever Fairmont Senior player to win the Kennedy Award, with Larry Drake winning it in 1958 and Kyle Allard in 2006.
Allard was one of Neal’s predecessors in a long history of heralded Fairmont Senior quarterbacks — an exclusive group Neal always said he was blessed to be mentioned with. Each of those QBs had their own marquee individual talents, and when talking to Neal’s teammates as well as FSHS and opposing coaches, it becomes clear Neal’s is his mind.
“He loves to throw the word ‘savant’ out there to describe the coaching staff,” FSHS coach Nick Bartic said, “but he has his own ‘savant’ tendencies.”
“I definitely haven’t coached anybody as talented or as smart as Connor,” FSHS offensive coordinator Mark Sampson said. “I haven’t seen anybody else in high school on film who can do the things that he does.”
Neal will leave the Fairmont Senior program as the school’s all-time leader in passing touchdowns with 79 and passing yards with 6,449, while tossing 77 touchdowns versus just five interceptions in his two years as the Polar Bears’ starting quarterback, an era that saw FSHS held below 25 points just twice in 28 games.
Those types of career numbers align with the simplicity with which Neal explains his knowledge of the team’s spread offense which was designed by Mike Mainella, the “consigliere” on the Polar Bears’ coaching staff. Neal says matter-of-factly conducting the offense is a “numbers game”. If the box is light, check to a run, if the X receiver has single coverage in trips, look that way.
“Either you can drop everybody or you can rush everybody and play man. Those are the two extremes of it,” said Bartic of a defense’s options. “You’re trying to balance that out maybe with a zone blitz in the passing game, but then he’ll check out to a run to what will be the open spot. That’s the thing, it’s not just the pass you’re worried about with him, he adjusts in our run game also.
“He’s the best of the best when it comes to understanding the offense and directing it. It’s one thing for him to know what’s going on, but it’s another thing for him to know what’s going on and communicate that with other 10 guys on the field so they know what’s going on also. He does that very effectively.”
Neal’s intellect is his trademark trait, but his physical skills are top tier as well, all the way from improved footwork over the offseason he said to a strengthened arm with impeccable precision. Neal can flutter a deep ball right into the bucket against single coverage, thread a seam route between a linebacker and a safety, or fire a bullet past underneath zones. And when plays break down, Neal extends them sandlot-style before launching a dime on the move to an uncovering receiver downfield.
“You can’t just focus in on one player or just try to stop the run or try to stop the pass because we could score in so many different ways,” Neal said. “It’s really hard for a defense to a prepare for that.”
Don’t let the system skew the picture of Neal as an individual player, however, cautions Bartic, especially in regards to his potential play at the next level.
“He is a humble kid and this is a very good team, but hopefully that’s not taken for granted,” Bartic said. “Whoever gets him in this recruiting process, they’re going to get a steal with him. If you put him in a program and give him a year or two, he will orchestrate whatever system you want and he will be good at it.”
Along the way, Neal’s demeanor and overall character will check every box within a program, Bartic said, be it his work ethic, his relationships with the coaching staff, his humility toward teammates, even his interactions with the media.
“We always say, ‘If we’re a band, he’s the front man,’” Bartic said, “but he never loses sight of the bigger picture even with all that attention. He always keeps everything in perspective that he’s representing something bigger than himself. I think that’s what’s special about him as a person and as a leader.”
Neal will be awarded the Kennedy at the Victory Awards Dinner on May 5 at the Embassy Suites in Charleston.