July 10, 2021 — “My advice to athletes trying to make it to the next level is to never stop working. When you become stagnant and stop improving, everyone around you sees that. The athletes that are putting in work will take your spot, your dream … and the thing you’ve worked so hard for. Why stop when you’ve put so much work in already? Don’t become stagnant.”
That advice doesn’t come from a professional athlete. Those words are straight from Mapleton High School Class of 2021 graduate JJ Neece, who is attending Western Oregon University this fall to play football at the NCAA Division II level.
Neece, who was also his division’s state champion in javelin and known on the basketball court for dunking more than a few times this year, is, for one, a natural athlete.
“He's always been a talent, even before his freshman year,” said Neece’s basketball coach and assistant football coach, Eric Wolgamott. “[I remember] hearing about this eighth grader coming up who was going to be really good, and he absolutely did not disappoint. With football his freshman year, he was one of our better players — he was one of the players we relied on to get yards and touchdowns, and that's kind of rare at any level for a freshman, so the expectation was set early for him.”
By Neece’s junior and senior year, he was getting noticed.
“Even with all of those expectations he had, whether he put them on himself, or they were put on him by schools, teams or others, he was able to manage all that and still go out and perform at the top level, and really distance himself from being good to being great,” Wolgamott said.
Indeed, by the end of his senior football season, Neece had racked up enough yards to make him the second ranking all-time rusher at the 1A, eight-man level, and was just a couple hundred yards away from being first; if not for the pandemic, and the Sailors had been able to play a full season this school year, he would have likely taken the record.
“A guy like that makes you look like you're really a good coach,” said assistant football coach Bryan Moore, who retired this year after this final football season, having completed 37 years as a coach for Mapleton. “He makes the coaches look like they know what they're doing and that makes it easy. I love coaching him because at this level, you don't get very many kids who love the game or do things other than show up for practice.”
Neece’s passion for football goes back to elementary school.
“My first football memory was playing flag football with my brother in about second or third grade,” he said. “All I can remember is how horrible it was — the cold, the constant running. It was awful for me then.”
Thankfully, he pushed past the initial difficulties and developed a love and knowledge for the game that has been unmatched by other players his coaches have worked with.
“In all the years I've coached, we have had some gifted football players,” said Moore. “JJ is in that category. But as the years have gone on, it has been harder to coach because kids are different; they're not as passionate. A lot of them don’t even know the sport. But JJ knew the sport, and he was passionate about football. He wanted to play well and play hard and make the sacrifices that it takes to reach that level, and that's all him.”
Neece’s work ethic is one of the qualities you will hear from anyone who has worked with him.
“He’s the kind of kid that when you doubted him, he would prove you wrong,” said Wolgamott. “He had a really good work ethic starting young, and I think that helped him propel himself.”
Mapleton’s head football coach, Jeff Greene, who spent 20 years coaching at the school, understands possibly more than anyone what it meant for Neece to be willing to work towards the goal of playing at the college level.
“What's really hard about small schools is you're the only person that has that goal of playing football at the next level, so you have to be an individual motivator yourself, and it's really hard to be motivated when nobody else has that vision,” said Greene. “As coaches, we really tried to help him stay motivated and get to where he needed to be.”
Neece realized he wanted to pursue football at the college level early in his high school career and was heavily influenced by his coaches.
“I didn’t really know I wanted to play college ball until my freshman year,” he said. “I remember having a talk with my coach and him telling me I had real, natural talent. I slowly became obsessed with the game, watching it on TV every opportunity I could, working out all summer, getting bigger, faster and stronger. I was a product of my community fueling me to get better and I loved it.”
Greene recognized that Neece not only had the talent, but also the drive and work ethic to make it at the next level.
“I've had kids that were good athletes, but they never really were sold on playing at the next level,” said Greene. “They were interested, but they weren't really serious about it. This was the first one that was serious about wanting to do it and had the athleticism to do it.”
In addition, Neece had the entire community in his corner, which, as Moore explained, is not always the case with athletes of his caliber.
“In a small school and community, I've seen it go both ways,” Moore said. “Sometimes with a really good athlete, people are jealous, but JJ, because of the type of person he is, there hasn't been that jealousy … it's been more of, ‘Wow, this guy is good!’
“For me, it was really exciting to see that these kids weren't jealous of him, and there was a good group of kids around him. They support him, and they don't treat him as some kind of a god either, and I think that's important; I think that's going to help him.”
This sentiment was echoed by Mapleton High School Principal Brenda Moyer and Athletic Director Carrie Dean, who said, “JJ is remarkable, not just his finesse on the court and field. It's his leadership and charisma beyond athletics. For example, he treats his teammates as equals and has earned their respect.”
Greene went on to thank Neece’s teammates for their contribution to his success in getting to the next level.
“Those kids sacrificed a lot for him to even have a season,” he said. “Some of these kids didn't want to play and they decided to do it. Without them, it wouldn't have been possible, and those kids are just as important as everybody else.”
The contribution made by the players on his team meant as much to Neece as it did to his coach.
“Football is my favorite sport because of the camaraderie and brotherhoods formed each year,” he said. “Putting your body through hell just to go out on Fridays and beat up other kids, and sometimes even get beaten up yourself. But no matter the outcome it’s the boys doing it as a unit.
“Football isn’t just the boys either, it’s the lessons you learn about yourself and how hard you’re willing to push yourself to succeed. You can learn a lot about a person just by seeing how they act on the field.”
While Neece had the potential and capability to go far with football, the efforts of various members of the Mapleton community are what brought him to his final goal, beginning with a solid family life.
“It must be said that he has great parents,” said Moore. “He's been brought up right with a great work ethic, which it takes to go where he's going. It’s a tight, close family and a positive influence.”
In addition to a well-rounded upbringing, Neece’s coaches went above and beyond the extra mile to help him, which he is quick to acknowledge.
“My three coaches are my biggest inspirations: Jeff Greene, Eric Wolgamott and Bryan Moore,” said Neece. “These three men helped me keep my head on my shoulders throughout high school. If it wasn’t for them, I would not be a Western Oregon commit. All three of these guys have helped me in life, school and sports. ... All three of them really know how to build a relationship with all of their student-athletes as well, not just me. They were tight with everyone and that’s a quality I really strive for.”
Greene had his work cut out for him, as he had never before worked with a student to get to the college level.
“It all started last summer, trying to get him looked at and recruited,” said Greene. “We sent films out and we kind of knew the head coach at Western, and if he got asked to go on a visit that would be great.”
Greene also faced unique challenges being that they were trying to get Neece trained and noticed during the pandemic.
“We tried to find a gym that we could work at or a weight room facility, because everything was shut down, especially in the area out where he lives,” said Greene. “You could get into Coastal Fitness in Florence, but then after a while they shut that down, so it was really difficult to get exposed and to find people to look at you.”
After spending time working out on Mapleton’s field, as well as the fields at Churchill and the University of Oregon (U of O), Greene made some headway in linking Neece to a connection who could further his efforts.
“We finally found a guy in town, Lavasier Tuinei, who had played for the Ducks, and they were advertising showcases, [specifically] the Eugene Showcase,” Greene said. “They get coaches to run drills and individual positions, and college coaches show up and watch. Then, they compute the numbers and see where you're at, and send them off to schools with video.”
Tuinei was a Rose Bowl MVP and JJ worked out with him two or three times a week for about a month and a half.
“That trained JJ to be ready for these tests and how to do them,” continued Greene. “If he could show the numbers, he could show what kind of athlete he was, especially coming from an eight-man school; he would be able to show that he belonged at any level.”
Green took Neese to workouts a few times before Neese started going himself, commuting from Mapleton to Eugene, Springfield or U of O. Other participants were from Sheldon, Marist, Willamette and Churchill — all bigger schools in the Eugene/Springfield area.
“Then, we hit that showcase, and it just so happened that Western saw him perform there and saw what kind of an athlete he was, so he got a partial scholarship at Western,” Greene said. “They knew of JJ because of the films and the emails we sent them, but I think the showcases really helped schools to take notice of him, and that's what helped him get to that next level.
“He’s a natural athlete, and he doesn't have to work at it as hard as some of those other kids. … He was the state champion in javelin, and he didn't even really like track. He just went out and did it. That’s the kind of athlete he is. But he had to work hard to be seen,” Greene said.
However, Greene worked just as hard to get Neece seen, which the other coaches made mention of as well.
“JJ is really fortunate to have a coach like Jeff Greene,” said Moore. “He spent lots of hours helping him [prepare for] the next part. At the 1A level, not too many people care, and it takes a coach that's willing to get out there and call coaches and talk to people, and he’s really done an excellent job for JJ. There are not that many out there that will go that far, especially with the hurdles because of COVID. I really tip my hat to Jeff for what he's done for JJ. He would do it for anybody, but JJ does have this extra talent that we hadn't seen.”
As a result of Greene and Moore’s efforts, Neece had offers and proposed visits from Southern and Eastern Oregon, but Western turned out to be the best fit overall, as he has the option to play outside linebacker or tight end for the Wolves.
His coaches brought him to where he needed to be athletically, however Mapleton’s administration and teachers also played a huge role in Neece being able to realize his goal by helping him keep his grades up and graduate.
“I really thank the administration, Jodi O’Mara and Brenda Moyer, and I really thank the teachers at Mapleton, because they helped that kid make it,” said Greene. “When he didn't have the grades, those teachers stayed in, and that's the thing about Mapleton; those teachers will bend over backwards for kids to help them make it. The kids just have to make the effort to do it.”
It’s not every day a student at such a small school has the opportunity to play at the college level, and the whole community clearly recognized this fact and came together to make sure Neece had the support and guidance needed to get to his final goal.
“It took a village; it took a community to get him to where he needed to be … to help him along the way,” said Greene. “Every teacher in that building that had him spent the extra time, and it was a huge deal to the school and to everybody that works there to get him through because he had chances to go to other high schools. When he went to the showcase, Churchill, Sheldon and even Siuslaw wanted him. But I told him, because he was thinking about going to all three, ‘I think Mapleton’s the best place for you education-wise.’
“What's cool about a school like Mapleton is there are not many kids, so you can really focus on some of those kids that are wanting to go beyond high school or do something that kids haven't usually done at Mapleton.”
Because Neece was willing to go the extra mile, so was his entire support system at Mapleton, and that speaks directly to how special the community is.
“Mapleton prepared me for the hard times ahead; everyone in the school system, coaching system and community,” said Neece. “Everyone told me their own adventures and times they have had, which prepares me for similar situations. It’s a passing of knowledge that I’m glad I get the chance to be a part of.”
Moore said, “We care about the kids. It's not about winning and losing; winning and losing is second. It's about the kids. It's about preparing them for life. What I've tried to do more than anything is to keep them focused and going forward.”
Wolgamott had similar advice for Neece.
“I always told him, no matter what level you play, if you're good, you're going to get noticed, but it's up to you to keep that fire going, and to not only handle the expectations in front of you, but to exceed them,” he said. “I told him before, ‘You're going to be a representation of Mapleton. What you do on the field, people are going to be following you, whether you like it or not. People are going to want to know how you're doing, and you're going to be a representation of the school, and it can be a really great thing. Take this opportunity seriously and know what's at stake, but know you’ve got so many people behind you and so many people that want to see you succeed.’”
For Wolgamott, “I believe he really, truly gets that. It's a great opportunity he has not only for himself, but for the school, the people that come through that school, for his teammates, for the whole community of Mapleton.”
Neece has the community in his corner even after graduation. His coaches have all vowed to continue to support him and check in with him as he begins the next step of his journey this fall.
“We're going to make sure things are good for him at school,” said Greene. “We’re still going to do the coaching thing because we care, and we want him to succeed. … It doesn't just stop there; we’ve still got to be a part of his life.”
Coach Wolgamott has full faith that Neece will thrive at the next level.
“I have no doubt he's going to do well, but he needs to stay self-motivated because there will be people that on his team that will be just as good as him, so it's going to be a different challenge,” said Wolgamott. “But I really feel like he performs at a different level when he has people at his skill level or even higher; he's a competitor, and he doesn't like to get beaten, so I feel confident that he's going to take this opportunity and excel even further, because when the stakes are high, he performs even better.
“It's a small town, and if you blink when you go through it, you might miss it, so we don't get a lot of opportunities with players that have his capabilities. I feel like with JJ, he's in a great position and he's going to really take full advantage of it and make everyone from Mapleton proud.”
Neece’s administrators will also be rooting for him this fall.
"We are incredibly proud of him and excited at the prospect of watching him at Western," said Moyer and Dean.
As for Neece?
“I’m excited to go and make my own memories,” he said.