When conducting interviews for a head coach, it’s customary for South Kingstown High School to include a student’s voice on the interview committee.
Not just any old student, mind you. One of the prerequisites calls for said student to have firm ties to the sport where the coaching vacancy needs filling.
Imagine Natalia McNeal’s surprise when South Kingstown Athletic Director Terry Lynch asked her to serve as the student “voice” when the Rebels were going through the process of hiring a varsity head coach in girls’ volleyball last spring. Call it a flattering request that’s coded in reverence and respect for the current high school senior .
“It was a big honor to be able to influence who would be the coach,” said McNeal. “I was definitely happy to be picked.”
For McNeal, the fact that she was the one chosen to represent her current Rebel volleyball teammates – ultimately, Iain McCoy was tabbed the coaching successor to Dan Perry – spoke volumes on how she has navigated the transition to her new school surroundings.
McNeal transferred from Cranston East to SK prior to her junior year (2021-22). Now here, she was still relatively new to the community but tasked with an important duty concerning a program that achieved state championship status for the first time last year.
Be it high school or at the club level, McNeal’s reputation on the volleyball circuit enabled her to ingratiate herself right from the start with the returning SK players. It can’t be easy to change course and begin anew midway through one’s high school career, but McNeal didn’t have to start completely from scratch in seeking to feel at home with the Rebels.
“Whether it was club or travel, playing with a few of the [South Kingstown players] helped me more than anything as far as relationships,” said McNeal. “The first day we had captains’ practice, I was welcomed almost immediately. All of the girls were so nice. If I didn’t have that, the transition would have been a much different story.”
The bond McNeal was able to form with her new volleyball teammates grew stronger as the Rebels embarked on a special 2021 season. South Kingstown dethroned four-time state champion North Kingstown in the Division I semifinals before completing the mission with a four-set victory over finals opponent Prout.
“During the playoffs, we started doing more things as a team. We gained more connections,” said McNeal.
At Cranston East, competing in volleyball represented the extent of McNeal’s extracurricular activities. At South Kingstown, she’s part of two clubs – Student Council and Varsity Athletes Against Substance Abuse.
“I definitely needed something [besides] volleyball for my resume,” said McNeal, speaking about the college application process.
The two non-volleyball groups that McNeal is associated with allowed her to connect with new pockets of people who may not have been aware of her athletic prowess.
“I can make different friends throughout the school. This year, I’m friends with freshmen, sophomores, and juniors. It’s not just seniors,” she said. “If you’re not involved in school-based activities, you’re not able to branch out and find new friends.”
Noted Lynch, “She’s expanded her horizons around school and done a very good job intertwining herself within this community.”
Further proof of McNeal quickly discarding her “newbie” status came when she was appointed captain of the volleyball team before the Rebels launched their state title defense.
“I think I base how I’ve been this season off last year. With the newcomers on the team, I know how overwhelming it can be moving to a new school,” said McNeal. “I knew I had to step up [from a leadership perspective] but also revamp it to fit my style.”
What exactly is her style? Cross paths with McNeal in the hallways and the odds are pretty good that she’ll be sporting a smile. She displays a personable and caring side that lies at the root of her belief system.
“Having a positive mindset in school and outside of school is a big key,” said McNeal, a senior with an “it” factor that proved to be a major trump card in transitioning from one high school to another.
“She came in and exuded confidence, but it wasn’t over the top,” said Lynch. “She’s a likable kid who fit right in.”
Brendan McGair is a sportswriter and columnist with the Pawtucket Times and the Woonsocket Call. A graduate of Providence College, McGair is a five-time recipient of the R.I. Sports Writer of the Year Award as voted by the National Sports Media Association (NSMA).
Follow McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03 and on Instagram @bwmcgair.