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Pennsauken senior Neal leads by example

Whether you call it adversity or just plain bad luck, the Pennsauken girls' basketball team has seen plenty of it over the last two seasons.

Whether you call it adversity or just plain bad luck, the Pennsauken girls' basketball team has seen plenty of it over the last two seasons.

The Indians lost two starters to injuries last season, resulting in a final record of 8-16.

They enter this season without a home gym, as the Pennsauken court is undergoing renovations that should last into the new year.

Through all of it, Vanessa Neal has remained the team's rock.

Pennsauken coach Laura Bell calls it quiet strength.

"She doesn't have to say much to be constantly encouraging the team to keep going and keep believing," Bell said. "She leads by example."

For Neal, adversity simply isn't worth thinking about - there's too much work to do.

"That's all we're thinking about, working hard," said the senior guard, who recently announced that she would play college ball at Niagara University. "Our expectations are to make the playoffs this season. And that's all we're focused on this season."

Pennsauken returns four starters. Its starting five includes three seniors - Neal, guard Dominique Roberts, and forward Lati Stafford - and junior guard Tanel Lewis. But Neal remains the most dynamic player on both ends of the court for the Indians.

At 5-foot-9, she's as strong in the paint as she is on the perimeter. Bell also described Neal as one of the team's top defenders, particularly in a full-court press.

"And it doesn't matter who the competition is, she's going to come out with her game face on," Bell said. "And she's that way in practice, too. And that's why she's been able to improve as much as she has over her high school career."

Neal is the first Division I recruit Bell has had in five years as the team's varsity coach.

For Neal, playing Division I basketball is a dream that she's more than looking forward to fulfilling.

"It means a lot," Neal said. "It's something that I've wanted since before high school. So it was very special, and it was a proud moment when I decided on Niagara."

If Pennsauken can stay healthy, it should be in as good a position to win an Olympic Conference Patriot Division title as it has been in Neal's career.

The team is vying for a division title with Timber Creek, which will feature a completely new look this season without its star, and last season's Inquirer Player of the Year, Jasmine Martin. Shawnee and Winslow Township are also strong this year.

Pennsauken doesn't expect anything to come easily - it will play all its games on the road until its gym is ready - and nothing has over the previous four seasons. But Neal says that everything the team has gone through has led to this season.

The Indians are an experienced team with chemistry, talent, and one of the top players in South Jersey.

"We just have to stay focused and be determined," Neal said. "I'm just trying to be a leader, to be a role model for the younger girls, and help us win games."