Manchester Valley’s Aiden Neal was a sophomore when the coronavirus pandemic wiped out his outdoor track season. At that time, Neal said he and all athletes had a choice to make.
“COVID, it was a horrible time, but at the same time, I feel athletes had a decision,” Neal said. “If they wanted to keep going and get better and become the best version of themselves, they could, or they could take it as a break and not do too much in regards to their sport. I definitely think I took the path where I wanted to improve as much as I could. That’s when the difference was made. That’s when I upped my training and when I feel I made the biggest jump.”
The work he put in took him to the upper echelon of track and field athletes. In his junior outdoor season in 2021, he won four county championships and two state championships. In this past indoor season, he won three more county championships and another state title.
It all led up to his senior outdoor season, in which he claimed four more county championships and four regional championships. At the Class 3A state championships, Neal left with three gold medals, winning the 800- and 1,600-meter races and running on Manchester Valley’s championship-winning 4x400 relay.
For all his accomplishments, Neal has been named the 2022 Carroll County Times boys track and field Athlete of the Year.
“I feel I really did everything I could to be the best athlete I could possibly be,” Neal said. “There were goals and records I destroyed, there were goals and records that I didn’t quite get to but I definitely plan to get to and go above and beyond with in college. I’m really happy with [my high school career]. I definitely didn’t expect to get this far. Freshman and sophomore year, I know my freshman self is amazed at what I’ve accomplished. But I’m really proud of it.”
Neal didn’t lose an in-state outdoor race in 2022. He was favored to win another state gold in the 3,200, but a weather-condensed schedule took it off his plate. Still, he couldn’t ask for more from his final high school meet.
“It was really fitting,” he said. “It’s like, all the hard work going into that state meet just getting ready to compete and executing really well, it was a fitting end to what was a great career.”
His individuals medals are nice, but he said he takes special pride in winning relay gold with his teammates.
“It’s a different kind of feeling when you take the line with your teammates and come away with a win that big in that big of a setting,” Neal said. “Coming together as a team, you worked so hard together day in and day out. We weren’t the favorites at all, but it was a really big deal to all come together and put together such a great performance. You’re not just sharing that moment with yourself — all four of you get that gold medal. All four of you worked so hard to get it. That just means something that not a lot of feelings can match.”
Neal will run in college at North Carolina in the fall, but before heading to Chapel Hill, he’s been keeping busy. He recently ran at the Brooks PR Invitational at the University of Washington outside of Seattle. He finished sixth in the 800 against a field of some of the nation’s top high school runners, setting a personal record of 1:50.21.
Neal said he picked the Tar Heels over Notre Dame and Georgetown, among other schools, because it offered everything he was looking for.
“North Carolina was actually one of the later ones to reach out to me, but the atmosphere there was just everything I wanted,” he said. “The coaches, the team, I could just tell they weren’t just saying they were going to build something, but they were actually building to the top and I’m excited to be a part of it.”
While he’s at North Carolina, a new generation of Mavericks will aim to follow in Neal’s footsteps. He hopes he leaves behind a blueprint for them to get to where he did.
“I definitely wasn’t the fastest guy going in,” Neal said, “but if you’re willing to put in that hard work every day — and recovery is even harder — hopefully, I can inspire people that it doesn’t matter what you’re going into it as, but the important thing is coming out of it as the best version of yourself that you can be.”
All-County first team
Edwin Alfaro, Westminster, junior
Alfaro was the county champion in the 300 hurdles. He also won the Class 3A East Regional title in the event and finished fourth at the state meet with a personal-record time of 40.82 seconds.
Garrett Boag, Westminster, junior
Boag won county and regional titles in the 110 hurdles. He broke 15 seconds for the first time at states, finishing fourth in Class 3A in 14.99.
Justin Condon, Westminster, senior
Condon cleared a personal-best 6 feet, 4 inches in the high jump to win the county championship. He cleared 6-2 at states to finish third.
Peyton Dill, Century, junior
Dill was the Class 2A state runner-up in the 3,200, finishing in 9:49.09, and was third in the pole vault, clearing 11-6. He was also sixth in the 1,600.
Tyler Edson, Liberty, junior
Edson finished second at the Class 2A state championships in the 800 and ran on Liberty’s second-place 4x800 relay. He was also second in the 400 at the county championships.
Samuel Evans, Liberty, junior
Evans won the long jump at the county championships with a distance of 19-10 1/2. He also ran on the 4x200 relay, which took second at the county meet.
Nathan Fields, South Carroll, senior
Fields won county titles in the discus (125-6) and shot put (47-10 1/2) with personal-best throws. He was second at the Class 1A West Regional in the shot put and eighth at states. He also won an indoor state championship in shot put.
Zach Gaegler, Westminster, senior
Gaegler won the Class 3A state high jump title, clearing a personal-best 6-2. He finished second in the event at counties to teammate Condon.
Logan Haines, Manchester Valley, junior
Haines was county champion in both the 100 and 200. He also ran on the state championship-winning 4x400 relay and the county championship-winning 4x200 relay.
Patrick Haynes, Westminster, junior
Haynes was the county champion in the triple jump and county runner-up in the long jump. He finished seventh at states in the long jump.
Carter Knox, Manchester Valley, junior
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Knox won the 400 at the county championships and finished second to teammate Neal in the 800. He anchored the state championship-winning 4x400 relay.
Chris Marquis, Liberty, senior
Marquis finished as Class 2A state runner-up in the pole vault, clearing 12 feet. He was third at regionals.
Grant Smith, Francis Scott Key, junior
In the pole vault, Smith was fourth at the county championships and fourth in Class 1A. His season-best jump of 12-1 was the second-highest in the county.
Peyton Thomas, South Carroll, senior
The county pole vault champion finished second in the state in Class 1A. He finished no lower than second at any competition this spring and had a personal-best jump of 14 feet.