When Mitch Neally was hired as the Fieldcrest girls basketball coach in May of 2015, he had two goals for the program — put banners on the wall and increase support for the team.
Eight years later, the program has accomplished both, and while Neally said it has been rewarding, he has decided to resign as coach.
“It’s something my wife (assistant coach Katie) and I have been thinking about a lot after the season and throughout it,” Neally said. “Being a coach is very rewarding. You get rewarded by wins on the court, but the most important thing about being a coach is seeing your players do great things off the court and seeing them do great things in their lives.
“There are hard things about being a coach as well. There are tough things we as coaches have to deal with that a lot of time people don’t see on the floor. It gets to the point where things start to wear on you. Being honest, I was very much physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted after the season. It felt like it was best for me to (resign) at this time.”
The Knights went 183-55 (.769 winning percentage) with no losing seasons, four consecutive regional titles from 2019-19 to 2022-23, back-to-back sectional championships the last two seasons and a fourth-place finish in the Class 2A state tournament in 2021-22.
There are tough things we as coaches have to deal with that a lot of time people don’t see on the floor. It gets to the point where things start to wear on you. Being honest, I was very much physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted after the season.— Fieldcrest coach Mitch Neally
Before Neally took over, the Knights never had a 20-win season and had never won a regional title.
He led Fieldcrest to its first 20-win season in 2016-17 and had four more after that and helped the Knights bring home their first regional plaque in 2018-19.
“At that point in time (when I took over), Fieldcrest had never had a girls basketball banner up on the walls,” Neally said. “There were ones for different sports, but not girls basketball. Since then, we’ve put a lot up on the walls. I give all the credit to the girls for buying in to what I was trying to do and having the type of work ethic they brought each day. I’m very, very grateful for that. I’ve made a lot of memories I’ll never forget. I can’t say enough about all the girls who have come through the past eight years and what they’ve done to get the program where it is now.”
All-State guard Ashlyn May said Neally shifted the direction of the program.
“He really put everything into it,” May said. “He’d be up at 4 in the morning watching game film for us. He was prepared to help us in any way he could.
“He’s completely flipped it into a winning program. I think I can speak for all the girls that he shifted it into a family as well. Everyone wants to be a winner, but he really made ure we knew we were always together with each other on and off the court.”
May, who will continue her career at Illinois Wesleyan, said she’ll take more than basketball skills away from her time with Neally.
“Obviously, I learned a lot of skills and developed in basketball, but I would say (I’ll take away) just genuinely being nice to people and caring for people,” May said. “He always had something good to say and was trying to transform us into great human beings. Many of the life qualities he’s taught me is probably what I’ll take away the most.”
Along with success on the floor, Neally wanted to help increase attendance for girls games at Fieldcrest.
“One goal was to pull out both sides of the bleachers because at that point in time, they only puled out one side for girls games where the boys had both sides out,” Neally said. “From day 1, even though they might now have been full those first full years, I made sure the girls got that type of experience. I told them our goal is to play in big games where both sides of the bleachers are pulled out and fans are here. I think we did a good job of that. I remember our last home game of the year against Princeton, that place was absolutely packed.”
Neally said the next coach will have talent to work with despite the Knights losing May and fellow starters Carolyn Megow and Haley Carver.
“I think they have a solid core back,” Neally said. “They bring back two starters (in Kaitlin White and Riley Burton) and some girls who played some key roles off the bench in some big games. I’d say the cupboard is not bare. I’m excited to see what they do next season because it’s a great group both on and off the floor. I think they’re destined for good things.”
Neally said he plans to continue teaching at Fieldcrest and serving as an assistant coach for the football team, both roles he’s had for the last 14 years.
He has not ruled out a future return to coaching basketball.
“We’ll see what God has planned,” Neally said. “I think for right now, He made it clear it’s time to take a break. We’ll see what happens.”
May said she’s eager to see what the future brings for Neally.
“I hope he finds somewhere where he can really show the type of coach he is and continue to impact girls because I know that’s what he’s got in him,” May said. “He’s got a real passion for coaching and I’m excited to see where he can take that next.”