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Spectacular Spencer: Mitchell's Neugebauer named The Daily Republic's football player of the year

It's hard to imagine there was a time Spencer Neugebauer wasn't thrilled about football. Even harder to picture, Mitchell's all-time leading rusher wasn't even on the middle school's "A" team. "When we first came out, I really wasn't looking forw...

Mitchell High School football standout Spencer Neugebauer has been named The Daily Republic's Player of the Year. (Matt Gade/Republic)
Mitchell High School football standout Spencer Neugebauer has been named The Daily Republic's Player of the Year. (Matt Gade/Republic)

It's hard to imagine there was a time Spencer Neugebauer wasn't thrilled about football.

Even harder to picture, Mitchell's all-time leading rusher wasn't even on the middle school's "A" team.

"When we first came out, I really wasn't looking forward to the season," Neugebauer said about his first full varsity season as a sophomore. "Then junior year, I was ready for the season. Especially with the success we had that (junior) season, it carried over into senior year."

And what a senior season it was.

The 6-foot-1, 185-pound running back and linebacker was a crucial two-way starter and senior captain for the Kernels this season. In 2016, Neugebauer led the team in rushing yards (2,191), carries (217), yards per game (182.6), rushing touchdowns (38), 100-plus yard games (nine), all-purpose yards (2,460) and total touchdowns (42). He chipped in 204 receiving yards and four touchdowns on eight catches for a team-best 25.5 yards per catch. On defense, he added five interceptions, 4.5 sacks, 12 tackles for loss and 64 total tackles.

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Above the impressive individual statistics, Neugebauer helped Mitchell improve from a 3-6 record in 2014 to 7-4 in 2015 to 11-1 in 2016, including the school's first playoff-era state championship.

"That shows our hard work and commitment to the team," Neugebauer said about the steady improvements the Kernels made in his three seasons. "It really shows how our great senior class defined the team."

For his spectacular senior season and helping the Kernels win their first outright state championship, Neugebauer has been unanimously selected as The Daily Republic's football player of the year. Each year, the award winner is determined by a point-based voting system that awards five points to the top player, four points to the second player on the ballot and so on. Neugebauer received all three first-place votes, earned 15 points in the voting and became the second Mitchell player to win the award (Jason Greenway, 2011).

Other players receiving consideration were Gregory's Andy McCance, Winner's Drew DeMers, Cameron Kuil and Krockett Krolikowski, Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan's Cole Gassman, Canistota's Xavier Ward, Mount Vernon/Plankinton's Hayden Schmidt and Mitchell's Cody Reichelt.

This year, Neugebauer was one of 24 seniors that helped end a 45-year state football championship drought in Mitchell. Looking back at Neugebauer's time and senior season, MHS head coach Kent VanOverschelde said he's proud of the athlete and young man Neugebauer has become.

"He just had to grow and develop into the athlete and the person he is," VanOverschelde said. "As a sophomore, we pressed him into duty. At the end of the year, we backed off knowing he'd be a special-type of player. When you look as his stats, it's just a really amazing performance by a high school athlete and by any athlete, on any level, really."

Rewriting the record book

Throughout the season, Neugebauer led a campaign against the MHS record book.

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No. 8, who earned first-team Class 11AA all-state honors and all-Eastern South Dakota Conference honors as a junior, became the school's all-time leading rusher (3,658 career rushing yards), while setting the single-season (2,191 yards) and single-game rushing records (325 yards).

He's also Mitchell's single-season scoring leader (252 points), career scoring leader (394 points from 2014-16) as well as the career touchdowns leader with 64. His 42 touchdowns in 2016 is the single-season school and state 11-man record.

The standout admitted the total touchdowns record stood out from all the other accolades.

While he's running the football and bouncing off defenders, Neugebauer said he's moving off instincts.

"Like my teammates say, I guess I've perfected the spin move," Neugebauer said with a chuckle. "I guess I spin them off, stiff-arm and keep running away."

On defense, Neugebauer finished as the school's career leader in interceptions with eight. Despite having success on both sides of the ball, Neugebauer has an affinity for offense over defense.

"Who doesn't like scoring touchdowns and having a party in the end zone with everyone," said Neugebauer, who developed a touchdown celebration with offensive lineman Bryce Geraets throughout the season. "I don't know how it started, but I'd just jump on him and he'd launch me into the air."

Both Neugebauer and Geraets, along with the entire MHS offensive line, did a lot of celebrating in the end zone this season. As a unit, Mitchell's offense set program records for scoring offense (45 points per game), total offense (392.5 yards per game) and total rushing (341.7 yards per game).

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Following behind former MHS standouts Jason and Justin Greenway (played at Augustana), Mitch Johnson (currently at Dakota Wesleyan) and Kanin Nelson (currently at South Dakota State), Neugebauer ranks highly among former Kernel players.

"He's among the elite players that I've coached," said VanOverschelde, who has coached MHS for 10 seasons. "To see him perform on a daily basis, he's just exceptional. In short, he's very much an elite running back in our program and in the state."

Ups and downs with the Kernels

The trek to help achieve Mitchell's first playoff-era state title didn't come without its ups and downs for Neugebauer. In middle school, football didn't appear to be Neugebauer's calling.

"We were on the 'B' team and we didn't let it affect us much that much, we didn't think much of it at the time," said Neugebauer, adding teammate Jed Schmidt was on the with him. "We just kept with the sport. We worked up through the ranks."

From a small, undersized player in middle school to being named the Joe Robbie MVP of the state championship game, Neugebauer's football career has been quite the story.

"It's been a crazy journey and I can't thank my parents enough, who (have) helped me throughout the way," said Neugebauer, who is the son of Ed and Lisa. "(And) the whole community itself, it's been quite an honor."

VanOverschelde noted Neugebauer helped set an example for the rest of the senior class.

"He's seen his teammates develop and grow in the program," VanOverschelde said. "He understood, it wasn't just his development, it was the development of the team. It shows he's a person of character and a teammate of the highest standard."

For VanOverschelde and Neugebauer, Mitchell's 41-26 defeat to Pierre in the 11AA semifinals in 2015 lit a fire under the team.

"We knew we had that one goal of going to the DakotaDome," said Neugebauer, who added a group of Kernels went to the 2015 Class 11AA championship between Pierre and Yankton. "We knew what to expect and what the atmosphere would be like. We told each other, we were going to be playing here next year."

The team entered the 2016 season with high expectations, bolstered by a strong offseason and summer workouts. Mitchell's first practice in August was full of energy and the team was dedicated to taking that extra step.

The state title aspirations took a hit after Mitchell fell 27-10 in the season opener to Harrisburg in the inaugural Kernel Bowl, but looking back, the loss may have been a blessing in disguise for the Kernels.

"It was a big wake-up call," said Neugebauer, noting it forced the team to make some changes that benefited the Kernels long term. "It called up some younger guys and they got a chance to shine, too."

The highs and lows continued for Neugebauer during the week leading up to the state championship game. His grandfather, Luvern Neugebauer, was admitted into the hospital and took a turn for the worse.

After rushing for a Class 11AA title game record 236 yards and scoring three touchdowns, Neugebauer dedicated the game to his grandpa. Two days later, Luvern died at the age of 81.

"It was a great honor to play for him and I know he fought through just to catch that game for us," Neugebauer said.

Future ahead

A multi-sport standout for Mitchell, Neugebauer, who also competes in hockey, track and baseball, hasn't decided on his future plans yet. In a few weeks, he'll be back on hockey skates and competing for the Mitchell Marlins after Thanksgiving.

As for his football future, Neugebauer, who has received interest from South Dakota State, South Dakota and Dakota Wesleyan, believes he'll put the helmet and pads again.

"It's something I've been think about and definitely, I plan on playing college football somewhere," he said. "I'm undecided where and now is the time I'm really going to start thinking about it."

Neugebauer, an academic all-state honoree, stated he has interest in studying agriculture after high school. No matter what path Neugebauer takes, VanOverschelde said he knows the standout running back will find success both on and off the field.

"Spencer will have some great opportunities to explore," VanOverschelde said. "One of the rewarding parts of being a high school football coach is watching athletes go on and perform at a higher level. It sure would be fun to see him perform on a Saturday afternoon."

Neugebauer had simple advice for future Kernel football players, especially players who are doubting themselves or the sport.

"We set the bar pretty high, but keep grinding it out and working toward that one common goal," Neugebauer said. "Always stay humble."

Here's a look at the other players who received consideration, with point totals in parentheses:

• Andy McCance (12): Gregory's junior quarterback led the Gorillas to a perfect 12-0 record and the Class 9AA state championship, the school's second title in three years. McCance finished the season with 30 touchdowns and only two interceptions, while shattering a pile of school records. He completed 117 of 179 passes for 2,321 yards and 13 touchdowns. On the ground, he added 777 rushing yards on 113 carries for 17 rushing touchdowns.

• Drew DeMers (6): The senior quarterback orchestrated a Winner team that went extended its winning streak to 24 games and won a second straight Class 11B state title. This season, he was among the area's most efficient quarterbacks finished with 14 touchdown passes on 35-of-50 passing for 803 yards on a team that only threw when needed.

• Cole Gassman (6): As a junior running back, Gassman helped carry Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan to the Class 11B semifinals in the program's second year playing 11-man football. Gassman finished the season with 190 carries for 1,228 yards and 13 touchdowns.

• Cameron Kuil (3): The senior was Winner's most explosive running back, helping the team win its second Class 11B title in as many years. Kuil, who will be running track for South Dakota State after high school, had 74 carries for 937 yards and 14 touchdowns. Kuil added five touchdowns on defense and special teams and caught three touchdown passes in the title game.

• Krockett Krolikowski (3): Another senior from Winner that played a crucial role in the Warriors' dominance. Krolikowski was a dominating force on both the Warriors' offensive and defensive lines. He helped pave the way for an offense that outscored opponents 610-35 and he led a defense that recorded nine shutouts in 2016, including the Class 11B title game. A future Jackrabbit, Krolikowski finished with 16.5 tackles for loss.

• Xavier Ward (2): Coming off a state championship season in 2015, Ward anchored the Canistota line of scrimmage for the past two seasons. In his senior season, Ward helped Canistota reach the Class 9AA quarterfinals and paved the way for an offense that had three backs with more than 600 rushing yards. He was named the Cornbelt Conference's most valuable player in 2016. Ward, a Freeman native, is committed to South Dakota State.

• Hayden Schmidt (1): Mount Vernon/Plankinton's senior quarterback combined for 1,781 yards of total offense and led the Titans to the Class 9AA quarterfinals. Schmidt went 60-of-98 passing for 1,060 yards and 11 touchdowns and three interceptions, while adding 120 carries for 721 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. On defense, he added 32 tackles and three interceptions.

• Cody Reichelt (1): Mitchell's senior tight end and linebacker played a crucial role in the Kernels' title run. Reichelt led the Mitchell defense that held opponents to an average of 12.5 points per game. He had a team-high 102 tackles, 17.5 tackles for a loss and added 4.5 sacks, two interceptions two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. He also led the Kernels in receiving with 11 catches for 251 yards and five touchdowns, including a highlight-reel one-handed touchdown grab in the championship game.

Past players of the year

1994: Josh Ranek, Bon Homme

1995: Josh Ranek, Bon Homme

1996: Glen "Andy" Thomas, Gregory

1997: Jeff Schultz, Freeman

1998: Chris Mikkelsen, Gregory

1999: Chad Greenway, Stickney-Mount Vernon

2000: Chad Greenway, Stickney-Mount Vernon

2001: Tim Dacy, Gregory

2002: Justin Horn, Tripp-Delmont

2003: Michael Veskrna, Gregory

2004: Doug Carlson, Howard

2005: Jim Williams, Hanson

2006: Jake Steffen, Stickney-Mount Vernon

2007: Josh Endres, Emery-Ethan

2008: Earv Archambeau, Avon

2009: Jayd Knodell, Winner

2010: Jeb Olsen, Canistota

2011: Jason Greenway, Mitchell

2012: Jaden Bartling, Gregory

2013: Brandon Kocmich, Avon

2014: Luke Loudenburg, Howard

2015: Windsor Barry, Winner

2016: Spencer Neugebauer, Mitchell

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