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June 8, 2013

Neeley twins shine at state, but never act like stars

I hate making mistakes. I mean, who doesn’t?

Mistakes that were easily avoidable are the worst.

As soon as I see a mistake I’ve made in a story, I automatically cringe and think to myself “Way to go, genius, you just showed 20,000 people that you don’t proofread or check your facts very well.”

Spelling a kid’s name wrong makes me feel awful. Misidentifying a kid takes me to a whole other level of self loathing.

Since I landed in Kokomo in 2010, I’ve been fortunate enough to cover some of the best teams and individual athletes this area has ever seen. Eastern’s girls track and field teams of recent memory are at the top of that list.

The Neeley sisters, twins Bethany and Brittany, are just about as identical as two people can get. As a result, I’ve misidentified one for the other and vice versa for the last three and a half years.

Covering them in cross country, basketball and track, I’d come to a point last winter where I felt comfortable enough to differentiate between the two if they were standing together.

The secret is in the smile. Bethany has a bit more pronounced lower jaw than her sister, while Brittany’s grin is a little more toothy than Bethany’s.

I’m not the only one here at the Tribune who has trouble identifying them. Photographer Kelly Lafferty is in a similar boat. At Eastern’s state finals media day last week, Kelly snapped photos of the athletes while I conducted interviews for stories that were to run later in the week.

Kelly asked me if I could help her identify kids in her photos later on that night, a way for everyone involved to save a little time. Feeling confident I knew all the state finalists by face, and the Neeley sisters by smile, I told her “no problem” and went about my workday.

Later on that night, Kelly brought the photos over for me to identify kids, just as I promised I would. I flip to the photo of Eastern’s girls state finalists, and wouldn’t you know, neither Neeley sister is smiling.

Having been thrown for a loop, I took to Twitter to try and find someone who was: A. Awake at 1 a.m. and B. Possessing enough knowledge of the Neeley twins to differentiate one from the other.

It was my lucky day, as former Eastern girls basketball coach Jeremy Dexter saw my tweet and offered help. Disaster averted.

I’d gotten in the habit of trying to guess which twin I was talking to before I’d start any of the numerous interviews we’d done over the years. Saturday’s girls state finals rolled around and I took full advantage of my final opportunity to misidentify the duo as high school athletes.

The Comets’ 4x800-meter relay team set a new state record in racing to a state title in the day’s first event. Twitter has become my most recent addiction, and as a result, I tweeted in-race updates from my seat in press row.

Eastern threw me a curveball right out of the gate. I’d gotten used to seeing them in green, gold and white uniforms, but they trotted out in black uniforms for the first time in my tenure here at the Tribune, so it took me most of the first leg — freshman Jessie Sprinkles’ two laps — to figure out exactly who I needed to be watching.

Sprinkles finished her leg, passed the baton to senior Sarah Wagner, and after Wagner completed her leg, she passed the baton to who I thought was Bethany Neeley. My logic on the subject was that Brittany’s signature individual event, the 800 run, would make her the prime candidate to run the anchor leg on the 4x800 relay. So I tweeted along that Bethany passed five or six competitors on her way to putting Eastern in the lead for Brittany, the anchor leg.

I had it wrong. Bethany was the anchor leg, meaning Brittany ran the third leg and was responsible for Eastern’s charge to the front of the pack. I got the news when I headed down to the track to conduct post-race interviews.

Kids and parents are usually not happy when writers misidentify kids, and rightfully so. We get paid to get things right.

But, Brittany and Bethany were so gracious about it. Gracious to the point that I should’ve been blown away, but as I’ve gotten to know them over the years, it came as no surprise.

For two kids who have reached a level of athletic superstardom rarely before seen in this area, you’d never know it by their humility.

As coach Michael Goodspeed put it, “they are as nice as they are good ... They don’t bring an ego or pride even though they have every reason to be able to do that.”

A combined five state titles and two IHSAA mental attitude awards in tow, their days of relative obscurity will soon be coming to an end as they move on to compete at Indiana University. I don’t know if living in the cornfields of rural Howard County has enabled their humility or not, but I’m willing to bet the grand stages of the Big Ten, the NCAA championships and maybe even onward won’t change who they are as people.

Fame makes maintaining humility very hard, but I have a feeling it won’t affect Bethany and Brittany Neeley.  

I don’t know if we’ll ever see anything like them — on or off the athletic surface — ever again. I feel fortunate to have had a front row seat as they’ve made the Tribune area, and the state, their stage for the past four years.

I don’t see the duo forgetting where they come from any time soon.

Josh Sigler is a sports reporter for the Kokomo Tribune. He may be reached for comment at Josh.Sigler@kokomotribune.com.

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