By JOSH SIGLER
---- — Bethany and Brittany Neeley’s rise to athletic superstardom continues to proceed forward at a torrid pace.
Their massacre of Eastern High School’s record books now complete, the twin sisters have now set their sights on not only doing the same on a state-wide level, but also nationally and internationally, as well.
After winning a pair of championships in the IHSAA Track and Field State Finals in Bloomington on June 1, Bethany was named Indiana’s Miss Track and Field during the Midwest Meet of Champions last weekend in Fort Wayne.
“Honestly, I was really shocked when they announced my name as Miss Track and Field,” Bethany said. “It's something that has been in the back of my mind the entire season, but once postseason comes around, you kind of just forget about all those awards and focus strictly on racing.”
After repeating as the state champ in the 1,600-meter run and joining with Jessie Sprinkles, Sarah Wagner and Brittany to win the 4x800 relay in a state-record time, Bethany set a new Midwest Meet of Champions record by winning the 1,600 in 4:42.14 competing against the best prep athletes from Ohio and Michigan.
“I feel extremely honored and blessed to win the award for my school, and especially my community,” Bethany said. “It made it that much more special that Brittany and Grant [Cole] also won huge track awards. As time goes on, I think I'll really start to notice how special this award really is.”
Cole, the boys state champion in the long jump and classmate of the Neeleys at Eastern, was named Mr. Field Event for the Class of 2013.
Not to be outdone, Brittany was named the Gatorade Indiana Girls Track and Field Athlete of the Year on Wednesday after winning a state title in the 800 in record time run before winning the same event at the Midwest Meet of Champions.
“I am extremely honored to be the Indiana Gatorade runner of the year,” Brittany said. “Bethany and I have just reached a new level of fitness over the past month, so these awards were just so unexpected, because we weren't of this caliber until recently. It is so gratifying to see everything coming together for my senior track season and just when I think I'm about to end my high school running career, new opportunities come up. I think Bethany and I are doing the best we can to just take all this in and are more grateful than ever for these new experiences.”
The achievements and accolades for the Indiana University recruits continued to pile up as the week went on.
On Friday, Bethany finished second on the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the U.S. Outdoor Track and Field Junior Championships at Drake Stadium in Des Moines, Iowa in 10:19.83, finishing second to University of Syracuse freshman Brianna Nerud, who won the event in 10:15.67.
That time for Bethany is the third fastest 3,000 steeplechase time by a high school runner all-time. She began training for the event just two weeks ago.
“I guess the race went out slow, but I didn’t know what to expect," Bethany said. "Brianna is the American junior record holder and she took it out a little hard, and the rest of us were trying bear it. In the middle laps I started reeling in the Lipscomb [University] girl [Madelin Talbert], and with 300 meters to go I passed her and put eight seconds on her in that last 300. It was such a weird experience racing in an event like this, but I learned a lot and have things I want to improve on. I’m going to try to do that before I get to IU and do it there.”
The top two finishers in each event will represent the United States in the Junior Pan American Games in Medellin, Colombia August 23-25, meaning Bethany will represent her country in South America.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet," she said. "We just found out a week and a half ago that we were coming out here [to Des Moines]. My goal was to make the top two, and meeting that goal is special, but it’s kind of tough because Britt finished third in her event. She’s an alternate, so if one of the top two get hurt or pull out of the race, she would be the next one to go.
Brittany finished third in Friday's 800 run finals in 2:06.68, narrowly missing the nod to the Pan American junior squad. Baylor University freshman Olicia Williams won the event in 2:06.35, while Stanford University freshman Claudia Sanders was second in 2:06.46 to claim the final Pan American qualifying spot. Brittany made a late charge down the homestretch, moving from sixth to third but came up .22 seconds short of the top two. She finished ahead of competitors from colleges such as Oklahoma State, Iowa, South Carolina and Pennsylvania.
“It’s just frustrating being so close, within .2 of qualifying for Pan Am," Brittany said. "But I definitely can’t complain. I was talking with Beth and it dawned on me that I went from a 2:14 or 2:16 800 runner to this, so there’s not much more I could've asked for. If I had to choose one of us to go it would be Beth. I’m coming out of here with no regrets and trying to keep a smile on my face.”
Brittany won her preliminary heat Thursday in 2:09.75. That made her the No. 4 seed in the event’s final heat. She ran a 2:07.91 in the state finals' 800 to set a new state record. Friday's time was the seventh fastest time run in the United States this season according to the Indianapolis Star's David Woods.
Though they were 500 miles from home, the twins still made time to speak with hometown media Friday night following their races, a testament to their humility, former Eastern girls basketball coach Jeremy Dexter said.
“It all comes back to their faith,” Dexter said. “The things they’ve dealt with in life have shaped their faith. Their faith shapes everything in terms of their morals and values that guide their decision making and how they interact with people. I’ve seen that time after time. They stay humble through many of the adversities they’ve experienced.”
Dexter and wife Melissa celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary Friday, a date that brings back memories for the young couple. Jeremy took the Eastern girls basketball team to a tournament at Hanover College during he and his wife's first anniversary the summer prior to the Neeleys' freshman season. Both went on to score over 1,000 points on the hardwood, leading the Comets to a Class 2A runner-up finish as seniors. Brittany was the IHSAA Mental Attitude Award winner for girls basketball, while Bethany matched her sister with the same award during track and field season.
“[Thursday] night, we were talking to Brittany and she remembered it was our anniversary and told us she was proud of [Melissa and I] – it was almost parental,” Jeremy said. “With everything she has going on, in the middle of the day when she has a race to get ready for, she remembered to contact my wife and I say she was proud of us. That is another noted example of [the sisters] being humble. As coaches, we need to remember that we can learn a lot from their stick-to-it-iveness. They’re like a part of my family, and [watching them race at the national level Friday] is a neat thing to see as a coach.”