There are countless stories from Luke Neitzel’s high school coaches that demonstrate his “freakish” natural athletic ability.
Football coach Brian Morrison put the ball in Neitzel’s hands as a quarterback, because he said the shifty senior with a powerful arm could make a “game-changing” play on every snap.
But late in Neitzel’s senior season, Neitzel tore ligaments in his right (throwing) thumb during a practice drill, when his hand struck a pass rusher’s helmet on his follow-through.
In the ensuing regular-season finale, Neitzel rushed for 91 yards on 16 carries, holding the ball only with his left hand, as junior Brandon Phipps took over at quarterback.
Five days later, in a revamped offense dealing with both his injury and the loss of running back Bryce McIlravy from a broken ankle, Neitzel carried the ball 20 times and caught a touchdown pass in a playoff loss to Sioux City Bishop Heelan.
“He had a TD reception against Heelan, and made a couple of really nice grabs with one hand in that game from the slot position,” Morrison said.
Basketball coach Billy Hiatt had players loft alley-oop passes for the 6-2 Neitzel to finish fast breaks emphatically with a slam dunk.
“Luke is the only high school player I’ve coached who can touch the top of the backboard square from (standing) two feet,” Hiatt said. “That’s not easy to do. We worked a lot on spacing last year to give him opportunites to get him to the basket. And he was a great defender. He took pride in it.”
Netizel has only been out for high school track for two years, and just started practicing the long jump this season. But it didn’t take long to make an impact.
In his first meet at Winterset, with very little practice outdoors because of the weather, Neitzel won the event and broke the meet record with his only jump of the day at 20 feet, 10 inches. He passed on his other two attempts because of a nagging Achilles injury from basketball season.
“I was over with the distance runners, and coach (Evans) told me he won the long jump at 20-10,” track coach Pat Schlapia said. “To do something like that, then make the Drake Relays and win both the Hawkeye 10 and State Qualifying Meet long jump at over 21 feet, what he’s done in his first year is an amazing accomplishment.”
“He picked it up really quickly,” said assistant coach Mark Evans, who supervises the jumps and hurdle events. “I suggested starting with 14 steps, but he asked if he could start (jumping) with his right foot forward, because that’s how he jumped when he dunked the ball. I said OK, then we’ll go with 15 steps. And it’s worked. I wish I could take credit, but he’s a natural at it, to be honest.”
Those are just some of the examples of Neitzel’s prowess on the athletic fields, making the youngest son of Monte and Tosha Neitzel one of three co-winners of this year’s Creston High School Outstanding Male Athlete. To have the award presented with teammates Briar Evans and Keaton Hulett was satisfying, he said.
“Yeah, it’s always been a goal of mine to win it,” Neitzel said. “I knew there would be a lot of kids who would be deserving of the award. We have a lot of great athletes in our class. So, it’s truly an honor to be mentioned with some of those other names. I’ve been friends with those guys for a long time. I moved here in third grade and started playing baseball, and traveling team basketball, with both Briar and Keaton. Great teammates.”
All three are multiple-sport athletes, but the one thing they all shared together in high school was football success. They helped revive a program to a district championship in 2011, and another playoff run in 2012, beating longtime nemesis Harlan two successive years for the first time in CHS history.
“Their athletic careers were as good as it gets,” Morrison said of Neitzel, Evans and Hulett, the first triple co-winners since Trevor Conner, G.G. Harris and Dane Wardenburg in 2006.
“They were the foundation of the football team, and the summer weight program,” Morrison said.
Nobody was a bigger threat, on either side of the ball, than Netizel. He had seven pass interceptions as an all-state defensive back, and his versatility at quarterback was a nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators with his ability to run or pass.
As a senior Neitzel scored 28 touchdowns while rushing for more than 1,200 yards and passing for 708 yards. As a junior he passed and ran for more than 900 yards each, with 24 touchdowns. With Luke Eblen at quarterback his sophomore year, he played running back and rushed for over 700 yards with five TDs.
And, a rarity in the Panther 3A program, Neitzel started varsity as a freshman safety, which allowed him a season with his brother, senior tackle Nick Neitzel. Both were selected to play in the Iowa Shrine Bowl after their senior seasons.
“As an athlete, whatever the sport, Luke does things a lot of other people can’t do,” Morrison said.
Coaches have observed that Neitzel appears relatively faster on the football field, when he’s cutting and making explosive direction changes into quick acceleration, than he looks running down one lane in a track meet.
“I watched him in a track meet here get beat by a kid in the 100,” offensive coordinator Darrell Frain said, “and I said if you put pads on them, Luke will beat him. His football speed is impressive. I think a lot of it is his physical strength and the power advantage he has in football. Every play had a chance to go the distance with Luke at quarterback.”
Return to QB
While it’s his favorite position in sports, Neitzel had a two-year hiatus from it after his eighth-grade year. He concentrated on learning varsity defensive assignments as a ninth-grader, and moved to running back for all of his practices and games as a sophomore.
He said he had to “re-learn” the quarterback position through extensive off-season work with Harris, the quarterback on the 2005 playoff team, and coach Frain.
“In my opinion, quarterback is the toughest position in athletics,” Neitzel said. “You have to know what all 11 of your guys are doing, and what everybody on the other team is doing. I had to learn better footwork, and how to make my reads and go through my progressions ... keep my eyes downfield, and not just rely on my athletic ability. I got a lot of confidence my senior year. Then I got hurt.”
It was a double-whammy for the Panthers to lose McIlravy and Neitzel from the running back and quarterback spots, just before trying to atone for the 2011 disappointment of losing to Spencer in the playoff opener on the heels of winning a district title.
“I honestly believe we were one of the top two teams in the state, us or Decorah,” Neitzel said. “If we were healthy, I think we would have made a run through the playoffs. Those last two games, I couldn’t hardly hold the ball.”
At one time, Neitzel was considered a possible Division I football prospect as a defensive back. But his dream of following in the footsteps of former teammate Collin Bevins didn’t come through, and he changed directions with his future plans.
“I got offered a full ride by USD (South Dakota), but I didn’t really want to do that,” Neitzel said. “I really just wanted to play at Iowa State. They gave the final scholarship to a kid from Texas and offered me a preferred walk-on, but I really didn’t want to do that.”
His brother had recently transferred to the University of Iowa, and Luke was making plans to enroll there, too, until a recent development when teammate Trey Thomsen committed to Simpson for basketball. Coach Charles Zanders learned about Neitzel as well, and successfully brought him into the Storm fold, as well.
“They said they’d like to see me play a three (position), run the floor and make plays in transition,” Neitzel said. “I think that suits me pretty well.”
They will be conference opponents of teammate Colby Taylor and former Panther Spencer Bakerink at Simpson College. All five starting Panthers in basketball this year have collegiate plans, as Evans will play football at Morningside College, and Kainen Somers will golf at Simpson.
Neitzel was the leading rebounder and scored just under 12 points a game this year in making the all-conference team for the third time. He was also a third team all-state selection for the 19-4 Panthers.
The roadblock to a state tourney quest was Atlantic, which beat Creston for the third time in district play at Glenwood. Neitzel had 22 points, four rebounds and four assists in the 68-48 loss.
“I think we had a mental block against Atlantic,” Neitzel said. “We beat Harlan both times, and Harlan beat Atlantic. Maybe it was just the matchups, but we didn’t play well mentally in those Atlantic games.”
So, other than last month’s Drake Relays appearance in the long jump, Neitzel has not had that coveted state finals experience. But, this week he does as goes in as the fourth-ranked long jumper in Class 3A at the state meet.
One goal left
In that competition at 2 p.m, Friday, he’ll have the opportunity to fulfill one of his two major athletic goals. The other was secured as a freshman, playing alongside Nick on the Panther defense.
“My goals were to play football with my brother,” Neitzel said, “and a state championship. I don’t have the championship ... yet.”
Creston coaches wouldn’t bet against it.
“To never practice the long jump before and be a Drake qualifier, and a state qualifier?” Morrison said. “Heck, he could win it! He could do anything he wanted in athletics and be really good at it.”