Friday, December 5, 2014

Neild Signs National Letter of Intent With Merrimack

Hannah Neild had a big junior season last year for Campbell High. Not only did she lead the Cougars to the Division III state championship but she was also named D-III girls basketball Player of the Year. After a year like that you can bet she had lots of colleges recruiting her. Neild has made her decision, signing a National Letter of Intent with Merrimack College.

It's rare for NH athletes to get a basketball scholarship. It's even more for an athlete who is legally deaf to do it. That makes this accomplishment by Neild even more impressive.

"It was a challenge to find the right school that I could pursue my academic interests and sports" Neild told the NH Notebook. "You can't visit them all and we visited a good amount. I had some D1 interest, the schools were in New York City and I did not want to go to school in the city. All of the NESCAC schools like Colby, Connecticut College and Bowdoin were great visits. I had a lot of interest from the Northeast 10 and my interest grew in those because of the competition level. All great schools - Assumption, SNHU, Saint Michael's, Saint Anselm's, The College of Saint Rose and of course, Merrimack. There were some great D3 schools that had my specific field of study - Springfield College, Union, Wheaton, Roger Williams and Endicott. THere were also many others, some out west and down south. However, I wanted to stay in New England. The amazing part was that all the visits had such great people and coaches, it made choosing difficult. If anyone reading this is considering these schools, you should know that every one of them has such great coaches and campuses. The hardest part of the recruiting process was having to tell these amazing coaches I was headed to Merrimack College."

There were many reasons Neild chose Merrimack, including the Warriors' coaching staff.

"I was offered a roster spot by a good number of schools" explained the 5-foot-9 Neild. I learned the Northeast 10 schools have roster needs - some schools need post players and others want combo players - it all depends on who is graduating/transferring or if they can get transfers down from D1 or the junior colleges. You look for a roster fit based on what they need and when I visited Merrimack in May, their coaching style and enthusiasm and the great tour they took me on was everything I wanted in a campus environment. It's a busy, active campus. They are upgrading facilities and adding new buildings, they demonstrated how they care for their athletes, you hear kids say all the time, I knew it as soon as I saw it. When I sat down with Coach LeBlanc and her assistant, Coach Jay, I knew it would be an ideal place to go to school. Coach Jay had left Merrimack mid-summer and I was a little concerned. They now have two new assistants, Coach Stec and Coach Williams who couldn't be better and have so much to offer our players. The Merrimack coaches put me over the top in addressing my questions and why they wanted me to be a part of their program. I had another official visit in early November when I could finally get away from my soccer responsibilities, they blew me away with their preparation for a scrimmage, their emphasis on team, and how much fun they had working hard at practice. I knew it was the perfect place for me. We have attended a few of their games since and I already feel a part of it. The location is ideal, it will feel like I am away at school and my family can attend many games at home and on the road in MA, as well as here in NH and VT."

Neild believes she will fit in well with the style of play at Merrimack.

"Merrimack likes to push the ball forward and run a motion type offense with set plays, looking for the best option which is and has always been my style" said Neild, who has been Campbell's starting point guard all four years. "They like my court vision and they will be counting on me to score as a combo guard, however, they like that I have a handle and can manage the ball when necessary. I have been the PG on every team I have ever been a part of and even as I got older I was told I was not a PG; it seems I always end up in that role. Merrimack has some nice players who push and distribute, I am looking forward to doing whatever they need me to do and play whatever role they need me in to make us successful."

While her hearing deficiencies have certainly presented Neild with obstacles on her journey, she has never let them get in the way of achieving her goals.

"I have bi-lateral loss and wear hearing aids" said Neild, who after college hopes to become an audiologist or a teacher of the deaf in order to help kids who faced similar challenges as she has. "I am legally deaf, however, I hear normally with my hearing aids for the most part. I don't let it define me and actually use it to motivate me. Over the years, there were some people, coaches that may have thought I was not up to competing or broken somehow which we never understood. It doesn't hinder me on the floor or the field. You use your eyes or hand motions, we communicate on the floor as we need to. My dad feels it helped me develop earlier because in soccer and basketball, you need to dribble with your head up and he says I did this at an early age. There are times when you have to adapt and I like to feel I had to rise above it. In my first home basketball game at Campbell as a freshman, a referee told my coach at the start of the game that I could not play with my hearing aids. He said it was a 'competitive advantage' to wear them. There was a girl with glasses and another girl with a knee brace, how could my hearing aids be any different? It really upset our school officials attending and my mom as they scrambled with the state to get a ruling. I took them out and played my normal game. There was a college coach there to see Becca Arnone who was a senior and she recruited me the past two years, she said if I could get past that and play well, she wanted to get to know me better. Of course, I also tripped and fell flat on my face during the introductions and turned a good shade of Campbell red. We got past it and the NHIAA got a strongly worded letter from the school and the result that same week was a new NHIAA rule that wearing hearing aids would be allowed going forward. I like to think that the next athlete with hearing loss will not have to deal with this issue and I am glad it came about so that it can help someone else down the line. I have been all-state in all three sports I play and if it is raining, I will take them out, there is no hindrance to how I perform. I can lip read very well and it has been known to save us a few timeouts. I hope that kids with hearing loss find sports or anything they try to be inclusive. I used a lot of these examples in my essay as I was nominated for the High School Heisman, it is an honor just to be considered for that award and never really thought about it much until people ask me about it. I know there are people who don't understand and there needs to be greater awareness of people who have disabilities, people discriminate without realizing it. I know I don't feel any different wearing hearing aids than someone who wears glasses."

Neild has taken her game to new heights, while playing for Dennis Reed and the NE Shooting Stars AAU program for the past 3 years. Prior to that Neild had been taking private and group lessons with Reed since she was 9.

Coach Reed has a system and it relies on each player to learn their role and create opportunities for each other. This is a system I do well in and it's good basketball. Coach Reed held us accountable to each other and to ourselves so we could develop and be our best. He is so focused on the details on everything you do, if you listen and follow his lead, it's simple, you get better and better. I will hear him at my school games on how to get my shot off better or align my free throws. He cares so much for the team's success, it somehow trickles down to your own ability to self motivate, how to help your team members be better, leadership. He has so much experience, he knows when to push us and when to give us a pat on the shoulder. I felt the best compliment he could have received was when we were meeting with the Merrimack coach, my dad was saying that he did not prefer a '5 out' mentality, he liked Coach Reed's motion offense. The individual style, 1 on 1 play sometimes has players force it and bad shots happen. Coach LeBlanc, the head coach at Merrimack said she agreed and it has changed her style of recruiting to see how players work within a system and liked watching Coach Reed's teams play, she wants players who can learn and play smart basketball, always looking for the best opportunity to score. Of course, there are times when you have to take someone on and drive to the basket, if you can create off of it for something better versus forcing it, that's better - right?

Coach Reed agrees that Neild has developed into one of NH's top prospects for the Class of 2015 and sees her as a good fit at Merrimack.

"Hannah is a coachable kid, she is good for team chemistry and that will help Merrimack" said Reed. "She's a good teammate, she has fun playing the game - college coaches see that. Hannah is a really good ball handler, she sees the floor extremely well. She has good vision, can see cutters, makes great passes. She can attack the hoop and has 3-point range. She'll be a strong addition to their program."

In addition to Reed, there have been other coaches who have helped Neild get to where she is today.

"I was quite lucky to have a number of coaches looking out for me growing up, said Neild, a 3-time D-III girls basketball all-state selection. "Coach Bob Couture of the NH LadyCats as well as Steve Shannon and Jim Duggan of the New England Flames were strong influences in developing the girls game. Coach Sean Hardy and George Mosnicka who were travel coaches that knew it was important to go out there and have fun, to share the ball and get everyone involved. Our basketball lead in town, John Bryant allowed me to play with the 7th and 8th grade boys that was a much faster game and allowed me to compete at a higher level. Other influences were Campbell Coach Sean Flynn who believed in me and gave me the PG role as a freshman. Certainly, Coach Allan, the Campbell head coach who never backs off of me and pushes me to be my best. He took a team of all different abilities and created a championship focus from day one and we did it. My mom and dad sacrificed a lot of time in driving me all over to the next training or event. They have coached me all along and made it possible to attend the best training available, there weren't too many breaks, always looking for a chance to learn something new and compete at Blue Star Basketball, PGC, Micah Lancaster and as much Hoop Mountain (Coach Hank DeSantis was always encouraging me) as I could handle. It would not be right not to mention coaches Tony Mure and TJ Thompson and their positive approach to training, I still do Tony Mure's drills to tune up something that is not going well."

In addition to basketball, Neild was also an all-state selection in both soccer and softball. She was able to play 3 different sports, yet was still able to be good enough at one of them to be a scholarship player.

"I had always been a three sport athlete and was training considerably for soccer which was my favorite sport at one time" said Neild, whose older brother Chuck also played 3 varsity sports at Campbell - football, basketball and baseball. "I was fortunate to play on some strong regional teams that always kept my fitness up. I played AAU basketball from 3rd grade on and there were many conflicts as coaches pulled harder and expected 100 percent commitment to their sport. My parents were adamant about playing different sports year round and trying new things. They felt the cross training, using different muscle groups and believed in keeping the games fresh for me as well as free from injuries. We laugh that I was over scheduled but we all loved the travel and kept it going as much as we could. My dad will tell anyone who will listen that I am a better soccer player than anything else. I began to really focus on basketball in 6th and 7th grade and saw opportunities open up. My soccer training always allowed me to play an entire basketball game or weekend event with good energy. It was a formula we tried to build on and as coaches expected you to specialize, we eventually had to go all in on basketball in 8th grade. My parents felt we would do as much as we could for as long as we could, it was interesting to see how coaches attitudes changed as softball and lacrosse grew in popularity, they grew more tolerant of having you join their teams whenever you could make it. The dream of college basketball became my focus in 8th grade and I was fortunate to hook on with Coach Reed, Coach Flynn and Coach Allan to guide me to where we are today. I have always it seems, been training for the next season while in my current season, it will be interesting to fully focus on basketball and see the results next year. The Merrimack softball coach has spoken to me and we are considering the opportunity to participate, the seasons do overlap so it's a challenge."

With all of her success on the court/field, you can bet leading Campbell to the state title this past March tops the list.

"Winning the state championship was so much more than just basketball" Neild pointed out. "We came together and had a good record, however, we had some ups and downs with putting it all together. We had some great wins to start, however, we lost to Bow after the break and we split with Bow and Bishop Brady during the season. We beat them both easily once and they played us tough in eventual losses in one of our meetings, it came down to playing better when it counted. We never know how good some of the teams are in the north because you don't see them. Beating Bishop Brady in the semis was so competitive, Sarah Thomas is such a good player, they had a deeper bench but we made our free throws and Coach Allan gave us things we had to do to win and he was right. Facing Fall Mountain in the finals we knew would be an equal challenge, Peighton Ahlberg and Morgan Ferland are such athletic, great players with size. I was not sure we could match up, they got off to such a fast start and rebounded everything despite our putting bodies on them. Coach Allan led the charge and our press created some panic that we turned into our favor. It was such a good feeling to win it all in your hometown with the kids you came up with, they were all having a unique moment in front of the whole school, the teachers and adults you grew up with - people were so happy. It was great to stand back and watch them have that moment - it validated my staying at Campbell. I had a chance to leave, go to prep or move up to D1. In the end, Campbell is a great school, the people there care and make sure you have every opportunity to succeed. The Campbell way is based on participating in or creating something you have interest in, be part of the community and functioning as part of a team or club. Litchfield is a softball and baseball town, to win a basketball championship might light a fire for the girls coming up to play basketball. We had come close my freshman year, I loved winning the last two softball championships, however, winning the basketball championship was worth all the sacrifices we made in the off season to the 8:00 AM Saturday morning practices, it was a winning feeling we will take with us wherever we go."

Now that she has signed on with Merrimack, now Neild doesn't have to worry about recruiting. She can focus this winter on winning another title at Campbell.

"Repeating this year will require the same, a little luck and a willingness to do the extra work - before and after practice" concluded Neild. "If we play strong defense and play smart, you always have a chance. I am so proud of all our teams, it has been a great ride and know we can do nothing as well alone, the support and guidance we receive is the reason behind our success."

It's hard to not root for a kid who has overcome obstacles in order to accomplish so much, yet still has a great head on her shoulders.

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