McNeill’s efforts on, off field helped Pirates reach new heights
by Aaron Garcia
From a season full of highlights, one moment still sticks out in Lee McNeill’s mind. It wasn’t his otherworldly performance against well-regarded Kannapolis A.L. Brown, when he combined for 357 yards (212 passing, 145 rushing) while drubbing the Wonders (a victory made sweeter by the fact it was the alma mater of his coach and mentor, Blair Hardin). It wasn’t throwing for 244 yards and three scores against Mooresville to advance to the Class 4A state title game, although that one was close.
No, for McNeill, the season can best be summarized in a brief moment in the hours leading up the state championship game against Laurinburg’s Scotland High at Wake Forest University.
After a brief walk-through practice at nearby Mount Tabor High School in Winston Salem, the Pirates boarded a bus and made their way to BB&T field, site of the title game. As they turned onto a side street, the players looked out the windows. There was the stadium.
“It was the first time we’d seen the stadium in-person, all together,” McNeill recalled. “You could see through one of the openings in the stadium, and you could see all the people and the huge (video) screen. It was unbelievable. I’ll never forget that.”
It was a seminal moment in a young program’s history, and although he wasn’t driving the bus himself, few people had more to do with the Pirates arriving at their destination that day in early December than McNeill.
This season, McNeill was equal parts steady leader and electrifying playmaker for the Pirates. He completed 169 of his 257 passes (65 percent) for 2,294 yards and
24 touchdowns with nine interceptions. As the quarterback in a read-option offense, McNeill was often asked to run the ball, and he averaged 3.8 yards per carry, en route to amassing 330 yards and another five scores on the ground.
Behind McNeill’s leadership, the Pirates finished the season with a 14-1 record. It was the first time since 1989 that a Union County team had advanced to the state championship and the first time in history a team from the western half of the county had done so.
For his efforts, McNeill has been named Union County Weekly’s Offensive Football Player of the Year for the second consecutive season.
Though the Pirates lost the title game, 42-16, their performance this season cemented the program as a player on the state level.
In many ways, McNeill and his teammates embarked on the unenviable task this season of trying to exceed already-high expectations, set in 2010 when the Pirates finished 13-1 and one win shy of the state title game. The Pirates replaced a host of starters on both sides of the ball, but the return of McNeill meant they had a chance. By virtue of his position, much of that pressure rested on McNeill’s shoulders.
Hardin said McNeill handled it -admirably.
“The quarterback position is such a high-profile position, and everybody expects the quarterback to be the leader and the backbone of the team,” said Hardin. “Obviously, he’s been a three-year starter for us and he’s the guy – out of all people – we want to be in that position for us because of all the intangibles he adds to our program. We’re very fortunate to have Lee McNeill as our quarterback, and he’s done wonders for us over the past three years.”
McNeill – who is drawing recruiting interest from Appalachian State, the Charlotte 49ers, Campbell, Coastal Carolina, Davidson and Wingate – said that much of his success came from film study during the weeks leading up to his games.
“I’m not the greatest athlete in the world, so I just had to see how (studying film) would benefit me and how I can be successful by being smarter than a lot of the defenses and trying to understand the game better,” said McNeill, who sports a 4.32 GPA in the classroom.
“Our prep work from this summer and the offseason really helped me in the season more than anything. It gave me a chance to learn the game more and study and feel more comfortable in what I was doing.
“Early in my career,” he added, “I was probably nervous before a lot of games. But these past two seasons, I’ve been completely fine because I knew I was ready to do everything to the best of my ability because of the preparation throughout the week.”
Now that his career at Porter Ridge is over, McNeill said he hopes his teammates remember his work ethic – how he proved you can win by outworking the other team. What no one will forget was how he helped prop the Pirates up to a level they’d never seen. They’ll realize how, after two years of starting as the team’s quarterback, McNeill helped get the program to a point where it’s considered a contender for state titles. And though the self-effacing senior would rather list his teammates’ efforts as a reason for the team’s success, there’s no denying the impact McNeill had on Union County football this season.
“The only goal I had this season was to try to win every single game we played,” he said. “We came really close. I feel like I stepped it up this year.”