FAIRMONT, W.Va. — Connor Neal’s junior season was one of the better individual campaigns a quarterback could hope for.
Yet despite passing for 2,590 yards with 31 touchdowns and two interceptions in 2017, the Fairmont Senior signal caller felt somewhat empty going into the offseason after the Polar Bears fell short in the Class AA championship against Bluefield 29-26.
The numbers hardly mattered to Neal, save for the three points that separated the Beavers from the Polar Bears.
Considering that Fairmont Senior had also finished runner-up in 2016, Neal wanted one thing above all else in his senior season — a state championship.
The left-handed quarterback recently led Fairmont Senior to that rare feat when it avenged the loss from a year ago with a 23-13 victory against Bluefield to capture the school’s first football title since 1946 — when the honor was bestowed upon them by the state’s sportswriters.
Neal, an experienced and electrifying quarterback, is the recipient of this year’s MetroNews High School Football Player of the Year after leading the Polar Bears to a 14-0 season.
“We came up short in the state championship two years in a row. Our primary goal from December 3rd on was just winning,” Neal said. “It didn’t matter who was getting the ball or scoring touchdowns. We were runner-up two years in a row and from that point on our goal was just winning. It didn’t matter who had what stats.”
Yet it’s safe to say without Neal, the Polar Bears wouldn’t have been celebrating last Friday night at Wheeling Island Stadium.
For the season, he completed 211-of-282 passes for 3,620 yards with 46 touchdowns and three interceptions.
“I wouldn’t say I was a different quarterback, but throughout the offseason, I got together with the coaches and wide receivers after lifting to improve on our chemistry and route-running,” Neal said. “I was more accustomed to the speed of the game to have quicker reads.”
Neal edged Martinsburg quarterback Grant Harman for the award, finishing with 50 points to Harman’s 44 and garnering seven first-place votes to Harman’s five. Spring Valley’s Graeson Malashevich was third in voting with 28 points and three first-place votes, while Doddridge County tailback Hunter America placed fourth with 25 points and a pair of first-place votes.
Wheeling Central quarterback Curtis McGhee III and Capital quarterback Kerry Martin each had one first-place vote and eight points. Bridgeport’s Jake Bowen and Mingo Central’s Daylin Goad had four and three points, respectively, while Parkersburg South’s Nick Yoho finished with one point.
Neal’s 46 touchdowns and 3,620 yards were plenty good enough to set single-season school records at Fairmont Senior.
“Connor’s never selfish and he’s probably the greatest quarterback to ever come through Fairmont Senior,” said Rhett Heston, a teammate of Neal’s a two-way standout on the Polar Bears.
That’s heavy praise for the southpaw, who has followed the Polar Bears’ program since his days as a youth. Over that time, Neal has seen his fair share of successful FSHS quarterbacks, including 2006 Kennedy Award winner Kyle Allard, Logan Moore, Trevor Malnick, Dominic Smith and Jake Abbott.
“They were great players and leaders, and I grew up watching a lot of those quarterbacks,” Neal said. “It’s awesome to be recognized with them now.”
Making Neal’s senior season even more impressive is that much of what he accomplished came without playing alongside Caleb Walker, a running back who was also a major factor in the team’s passing attack.
Walker suffered a broken jaw in the season opener that forced him to miss extended action, before returning, only to suffer another injury and miss the state title game.
“Losing Caleb was a big loss because he was probably the best athlete on our team this year,” Neal said. “But we knew we had a ton of skill guys and wide receivers that could step up and do their thing. We weren’t worried with what we had — we just knew they needed to step up and help and they did.”
Bluefield’s Mookie Collier received the award in 2017, while Mingo Central’s Jeremy Dillon won it in 2016.