Super 5 girls basketball: Edmond Santa Fe's Keira Neal triumphed through tragedy
EDMOND — Keira Neal wrote each date with black marker on her basketball shoes as a reminder.
They mark tragedy in her life, but they are what fuel her on the basketball court to be a high-flying defender at Edmond Santa Fe High School.
“I mainly used it as motivation,” Neal said.
For a shy, soft-spoken teenage girl, the past three years have been full of pain. Her father died following an exorbitant amount of surgeries from a work accident. Her older brother was shot and killed.
All within a 19-month span.
“We’re determined not to let this bring us down,” Keira’s mom Kendra said. “I can tell you, we got down and we were weak, but at the same time we had our moments and other days we were like, ‘OK, let’s get it. We’ve got to keep moving.’”
Keira, a North Texas signee, is arguably the state’s most talented defender, a 5-foot-9 guard with long arms and the ability to outjump nearly anyone on the court. She regularly blocks shots of girls well above 6-feet tall and bottles up elite scorers.
She averaged 11 points and six rebounds while leading Edmond Santa Fe to the Class 6A state semifinals despite being ranked No. 14 by coaches. Now, Neal is The Oklahoman’s Big All-City Player of the Year.
“To me, I think she’s probably the best defensive player overall in the state as far as she can guard anything,” Edmond Santa Fe coach Paul Bass said. “I think she’s going to be a late bloomer.”
Seventeen months ago, Neal nearly walked away from basketball.
Her father, Ronnie, died following his 23rd surgery nearly nine years after his motorcycle was hit by a van while on duty as an Oklahoma County deputy.
Just before her junior season was set to open, Keira’s 26-year-old brother, Kendall, was then shot and killed 19 months later during a drug deal.
Keira was extremely close to both. Her dad always brought her to practice and school, even after the accident. Once he died, Kendall stepped up. He stayed with Kendra and Keira. He bought Keira clothes and food.
“He was like my best friend,” Neal said.
Coaches encouraged Neal to stick with basketball. It could help the healing.
When she opened her junior season, she was different. More aggressive, more determined and full of energy.
“I played my hardest,” Neal said. “I knew they were watching me from above.”
That carried through the next two seasons. Neal has drawn comparisons from Bass to former Santa Fe star Courtney Walker with her athleticism.
Bass said North Texas got a steal signing Neal. He also believes she’s possibly the toughest player he’s coached.
Neal became dominant through tragedy.
“I feel way stronger,” Neal said. “Even though they’re not by my side, they’re still in my heart.”