The Lincoln Park native and American University freshman guard is only the second Francis W. Parker graduate to participate in the NCAA tournament, according to school spokesman Nick Saracino. He joins Bob McCormick, who played on the 2007 Virginia team that was a No. 4 seed that year.
American punched its NCAA ticket with a 55-36 upset victory over top-seeded Boston University in the Patriot League tournament title game. The 15th-seeded Eagles (20-12) will play No. 2 seed Wisconsin (26-7) Thursday in the NCAA tournament's second round in Milwaukee.
"It's a great opportunity and a great honor," Neal said of representing Parker, which was founded in 1901, at the Big Dance.
Neal, a 6-foot point guard, has seen one minute of court time this year. His main duties have been on the scout team, where he prepares the Eagles' starters by emulating future opponents' guards.
"He has helped us a ton. He's gotten better, worked hard and does a great job on our scout team," American first-year head coach Mike Brennan said. "The energy he brings every day in practice and during games on the bench is invaluable."
Neal said it was a tough adjustment from the high school level, where he started varsity all four years and was the Independent School League player of the year as a senior. That year, he led the Colonels to 19 wins and an IHSA regional title.
But Neal's high school coach, John Bongiorno, said he sees his former guard eventually working his way into the Eagles' guard rotation.
"I see him making a contribution as a heady point guard who will make the right play and be a solid defender," said Bongiorno, now the head coach at Maine West High School. "He is always trying to get better. At Parker "he was very coachable, had a great work ethic and was a winner."
Neal's mother, Jeanette Sublett, credited Bongiorno for providing her son "a sound foundation to play" at American. She's also been pleased with Neal's ability to balance the demands of a Division I sport and a rigorous academic schedule.
Neal said he inherited his athleticism from his mother's side of the family. His first cousin, Gabe Nyenhuis, was an NFL defensive lineman, while Nyenhuis' sister, Dani, earned ACC volleyball player of the year honors at North Carolina in 2005.
His mother is an attorney at the prestigious law firm, Neal & Leroy, LLC, owned and operated by his father, Langdon David Neal. The firm was founded in 1938 by Neal's great-grandfather, Earl James Neal, then run by his grandfather, Earl Langdon Neal. Neal is not a "junior"; his middle name is Earl.
Neal's sister, Tyler, is a Cornell graduate now in her first year at American's law school. Another sister, MacKinzie, will be graduating from University of Pennsylvania in May and serving as a paralegal in New York starting in August.
But Neal doesn't necessarily think the law field is for him, or for his twin sister Savannah, who is eight minutes younger and a Cornell freshman interested in environmental science. Neal hasn't declared a major, although he's considering communications.
"I'm not leaning toward law; I'm thinking of a new path," Neal said. "I know my dad and mom will support me in whatever I want to do."
Neal's father said he's definitely not pushing him into the legal world, although the possibility is always there.
"It's always the elephant in the room," Langdon David Neal said. "When you have a great-grandfather, grandfather, father and mother all as lawyers, and a sister in law school ... you don't have to say anything."
Neal's parents have watched American games in person several times this season. They viewed Wednesday's triumph over BU at Piece in Bucktown, where they attended a get-together for American University graduates. They'll almost certainly travel to Wisconsin for Thursday's game against the Badgers.
"To watch him in Division I and getting to the NCAA tournament, it's a huge jump in his life," Neal's dad said. "To see the success has been really remarkable."
Neal's team was predicted to finish in ninth place in the conference's preseason poll, so their trip to March Madness has been "surprising," he said.
But now that the Eagles have qualified for their third NCAA tourney, Neal said they might as well spread their wings and pick up their first conquest.
"We're glad our hard work has paid off," Neal said. "But our work isn't done."