Inside of New Jersey track circles, Ste'yce McNeil was seen as a serious candidate to double in both the 55-meter hurdles and the 400 at last month's indoor Meet of Champions.
And while the Winslow Township (Atco, N.J.)
junior standout fell short in both events, she still walked away satisfied – an accomplishment in itself considering she quit the sport last season.
"I'm very happy," McNeil said. "I won all of my events during our sectionals and also the states (Group 3). I'm proud of myself."
During the outdoor portion of her sophomore season, McNeil, one of South Jersey's rising stars at the time, packed away her track shoes, having grown so dissatisfied with Winslow Township's program and the sport she has enjoyed since watching her siblings compete during her formative years.
Before coming to coach Winslow Township, George Horne coached across the Delaware River at West Philadelphia High School and heard about McNeil. He looked forward to seeing her sprint. But when he and his team arrived at a meet last spring, he learned that she left the team.
And so, one of the first things Horne did when arriving at his new school was talk to McNeil. Or more specifically, talk to her mother about not transferring.
At that point, McNeil wanted to run again. She went and watched the Garden State's outdoor Meet of Champions last May, admitting a sense of sadness while thinking that could have been her outrunning the field in her events.
However, she was not going back to Winslow Township without being assured she would enjoy the sport again. A few minutes talking to Horne quelled her concerns.
"He called my mom and told her not to do it," McNeil recalled. "My summer track coach knows him and said he's a good coach."
Having heard this, McNeil returned to the track refreshed by the practice routines Horne created specifically to help the junior tap into her vast potential. As her times dropped, her spirits soared.
"Her and I have a real good relationship," said Horne, who coached 14 years at Division I Temple University and 14 more seasons at West Philadelphia before coming to Winslow Township. "She's happy every day I see her at practice."
"She's been happier," teammate Brittany McClain said. "We're like sisters. It makes me happy because she's very happy."
McNeil starred at the state Group 3 meet, turning a gathering of New Jersey's best and brightest into her personal proving ground. She won gold medals in the 55 hurdles (8.19 seconds), 55 dash (7.23) and the 400 (56.69) while anchoring the triumphant 4x400 relay with a 59.5-second split.
"This year things are finally starting to get back together for her," Horne said
Although she got outkicked down the stretch and finished second behind Columbia's Olivia Baker in the 400 at the indoor Meet of Champions, competing again at big meets has boosted McNeil's competitive drive while raising hopes of even bigger and better things for the upcoming outdoor season.
"Ste'yce works as hard as any kid I've ever had," Horne said. "She's probably the most knowledgeable runner I have on the team."
And now, after some time off the track, certainly one of most content.
"I've enjoyed this so much, from practices to meets to spending time with my teammates," McNeil said. "I'm just going to try to do the same things I did during the indoor season. I'm only a junior. My goals for the outdoor season are just to be happy."