Big hits, kicks and jumps
The junior varsity softball coach at Belleville West last season, Phillip Neal didn’t expect to get his first varsity opportunity after just one year.
But after Brian Geluck stepped down as the Maroons coach earlier in 2018-19 school year for health reasons, Neal got the tap on the shoulder and an opportunity he wanted.
“I really enjoyed working with and for Brian. This is not the way you want to step into a head coaching job because of his health . But for the most part I think last year and this year that most of our coaching staff has been on the same page with the girls,’’ Neal said. “It was nice to watch and learn from (former coach) Casey Garrett for a couple and see what Brian did last year and take bits and pieces from what they did and add my own twist to it.
“I think I have added my own twist to it.’’
The transition has gone smoothly thus far. Already with a pair of three game winning streaks, West dropped a 5-3 decision to state power Edwardsville Tueday and is now 6-4 for the season.
“I think the girls have responded well. We’ve beaten some good teams,’’ Neal said. “We’ve done things right. Our defense is clean. The girls are listening, they are making adjustments and they’ve bought into the system that we’ve put into place. We’re strict but there is also a lot of fun that goes along with that.”
A 1997 graduate of Decatur Eisenhower High School, Neal attended McKendree University where he competed in football, basketball and baseball.
In addition to coaching softball at Belleville West, Neal also spent a year on the basketball coaching staff at Triad High School and for two years was the freshman girls basketball coach at West.
Neal’s softball experience included playing slow pitch and watching the nationally known Decatur Pride men’s fast-pitch softball team while growing up.
“I think a lot of the fundamentals of baseball ans softball are the same. There are some minor adjustments in softball. It’s a smaller game and a lot of the situational stuff is smaller in softball,” he said. “That’s why it was nice spending those three years learning and especially two years under Casey (Garrett) who had the (NCAA) Division I experience and knew the game so well. Plus, she had great coaches in Bob (Yagge) and Tom (Ninnis) who taught her then game so well.”
Neal knows about the reputation of the Southwestern Conference in softball. Edwardsville is a state power, while O’Fallon, Belleville East, Belleville West, Alton and Collinsville all have excellent programs.
“We had a lot of success last year at the junior-varsity level and I think we’ve kind of carried that type of success and winning attitudes over with this group of girls this year,” he said. “They’re done the work in the offseason and they’re doing everything we’re asking of them right now. We’re winning and having success right now and that helps.
“But win or lose we want this to be an enjoyable experience for these girls. We want it to be fun. We’re having fun coaching them. They’re a great group to work with and to be around.’’