By Josh Sigler
TERRE HAUTE — Brittany Neeley joked with teammates this week that the mental attitude award was typically reserved for a player on the losing team.
Eastern’s girls basketball team may have had fewer points on the scoreboard at the conclusion of Saturday’s Class 2A state title game, but there’s been nothing about Neeley’s time as a high school student that could be classified as “losing.”
Playing in the state finals in the third different sport of her prep career, Neeley was honored as the 2A winner of the Patricia L. Roy Mental Attitude Award following a 62-42 loss to No. 1-ranked and defending state champion Evansville Mater Dei.
“Each accomplishment we get each week seems to make it to the top of my high school career,” Neeley said. “This is such an honor. It means a lot being a student-athlete, although [Saturday] it was a little frustrating on the court. I think we’re going to leave here with no regrets, and it was a good way to end my career.”
The IHSAA allows the principal of each participating school to nominate a player for the mental attitude award, leaving Eastern’s Keith Richie in a precarious position.
Brittany’s twin sister, Bethany, has a resume just as impressive. While Bethany was nominated for the award during the Comets’ run to the state finals in cross country last fall and did not win, Richie is hoping she, the state’s reigning champion in the 1,600-meter run, will win the award during track and field season in the spring.
“[Saturday] was for Brittany. She had an exceptional year in basketball — an exceptional four years,” Richie said. “Words can hardly say how important they’ve been to the Eastern Comets. They work hard — so much harder than any girls I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been doing this for over 20 years. They’re both over 4.0 [grade-point averages] in the classroom. They succeed in the classroom, but before school you’ll see them out running, even during basketball season. Their work ethic is second to no other kid.”
Brittany is ranked second in Eastern’s current senior class with a 4.5 GPA on a four-point scale. That’s the tip of the iceberg as far as her credentials are concerned.
She’s a member of National Honor Society, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Spanish Club, Key Club and Students Against Drunk Driving.
She surpassed the 1,000-point mark for her career this year, then became the program’s all-time leading scorer coming down the stretch run of the season.
On top of her basketball achievements, she’s a three-time state finalist in track and a two-time finalist in cross country. The sisters will run track and cross country for Indiana University once their prep days are through.
“I’m just really proud of her,” Bethany said of her sister. “Most of them are sports accomplishments, but Brittany does her homework and studies hard to keep a good GPA. I wanted her to win an award for something other than sports, something academic. I think it’s really good for our school, as well.”
Saturday was especially hard on Comets coach Jeremy Dexter. He’s been open about just how much the Neeley sisters have meant to, not only his basketball program, but himself as a person.
Their commitment to their school, their teammates and their religion have helped him, in his own admission, strive to be better in all that he does.
Doing his best to fight back emotion, Dexter replied “I can’t sum that up” when asked what the Neeleys have meant to him.
“I always talk about not being able to play that movie forward,” he continued. “They’ll be a part of my family my whole life, and I’ll be part of theirs. You can only have athletes for so long as far as on the floor. They’ll be in my family forever. They mean a lot to myself, my wife and son.”
Trailing late in Saturday’s game, Dexter left the Neeley sisters in the game after wholesale substitutions to give the duo one last opportunity to leave a signature impression.
“I didn’t know if we’d get the ball back to get everybody out of the game,” Dexter said. “I looked at them like I have so many times and said, ‘You have to go get the basketball.’”
With 21 seconds to play, Bethany stepped into the passing lane and poked away a steal. She dished off to her sister as the two raced toward the basket, hoping Brittany would take the final shot.
In a characteristic show of selflessness, Brittany passed the ball back to her sister to score the lay up.
“That’s what they do,” Dexter said. “If you tell them to do it, they do it.
“It was a good way to finish.”
Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance donated a $1,000 scholarship to Eastern High School in Brittany’s name.
Roy, a former assistant commissioner with the IHSAA, oversaw the girls basketball tournament from its infancy in 1976 until retiring in 1999.
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