It’s a select group of players who get to end their college season with a win and an even smaller group who get to cap their careers lifting a national championship trophy, but that’s exactly what Quinn McNeill got to do with Clemson on December 12.
For McNeill, who finished his undergrad degree last December but decided to come back for one final season while pursuing his MBA, the trophy-winning moment was a culmination of a lot of hard work and some unexpected disappointment in a soccer journey that began when he was a young kid in Wenonah, New Jersey trying to emulate his older brother and sister.
“The last kick of the game came to me and I punted it up in the air and it was just surreal,” McNeill said in a phone interview. “It still really hasn’t truly set in the magnitude of what it means to do that.”
Clemson scored just 27 seconds into the final and it was Isaiah Reid’s second that doubled an advantage they would not relinquish against Washington in what ended up being their most comfortable win of the tournament. Oskar Ågren’s 108th minute penalty decided their tournament-opening win against Denver, an 89th minute winner from Alvaro Gomez edged Kentucky and the Tigers needed penalties to beat top seed Oregon State and Notre Dame.
McNeill logged nearly 500 minutes of the tournament run as one of the workhorses in the midfield for the Tigers, which were ranked 8th after falling to Duke in the ACC final.
“It really was just about being calm in the moment, not getting too high or too low, but just focusing on the details, relying on our practice and then just executing,” McNeill said, dissecting a somewhat improbable run for a Clemson team that had crashed out as the top seed on penalties in May to eventual champions Marshall.
“It was not our best regular season,” McNeill said. “But I think we just truly battled knowing that the senior class has been through a lot, lost twice in PK shootouts the previous two years in the tournament.”
McNeill wore some of that burden going into the season having missed a penalty in the Marshall game but it was just one of a couple setbacks he experienced that looking back now make it all that much sweeter.
It took a family move, a season impressing as a redshirt on the scout team and a rare tournament miss for one of the top programs in college soccer that fueled McNeill’s storybook ending.
McNeill’s family moved from Wenonah to Greenville, South Carolina when he was on the cusp of playing academy soccer here locally. He was 12 at the time and a standout for Highland Youth Club when his dad’s job was transferred and after some discussion about him staying behind to join the Philadelphia Union Academy he ended up opting to join his family and pursue his soccer passion with Carolina Elite Soccer Academy.
His time with CESL was productive as a five-time state champion and he was firmly on the radar of the Clemson program, but a crowded midfield his freshman year led him to face the difficult decision of redshirting, one that in hindsight allowed him to be with the team for one final run this season.
“That was hard but it really tested me,” McNeill said. “I ended up putting my head down, made the best of it and I ended up being scout team player of the year, which was basically saying I was the best of the reserves.”
The following season he became a fixture in the midfield and was part of a core group that battled through a season missing out on the tournament to eventually becoming the first Clemson team since 1987 to win a national title.
“The common thing we talked about is that the trophy would be coming back to Clemson,” McNeill said. “It was just a question of would we be the team to do it.”
That the path to the final would end up with an ACC rival and a couple players from his days as a kid living in South Jersey added just another dramatic twist to the story for McNeill. Notre Dame’s roster featured a former Highland Youth Soccer player in Dawson McCartney and another Wenonah native in Michael Pellegrino. Both McCartney and Pellegrino went on to play for the Philadelphia Union Academy.
“(Pellegrino) was younger than me but we would always play together at the park and I think we always knew we were two of the better players in Wenonah,” McNeill said. “And then the funny thing with Dawson was we played on the same club team for a while.”
Needless to say, he wanted to win that game perhaps even a little more than the others against a former teammate in McCartney he hadn’t seen in about a decade when the two teams met earlier in the season. Notre Dame won that game 2-0.
“We’re both very competitive so he beat me the first time and it was like there’s no way I can let that happen again,” McNeill said. “It was awesome to play him again and just to see him but to win was even better just for you know a little bit of pride sake.”
With all the twists and turns of his youth and college career now behind him, McNeill, who was born in the Republic of Ireland and moved to South Jersey before starting school, is looking ahead to continuing his career at the professional level and carrying on the momentum of a magical season at the next level.
“The plan is to play,” McNeill said.
However long or successful his career is at the next level, he’ll have a future of invites back to campus to celebrate the legacy of what he and his teammates just pulled off.
By then maybe it will have all sunk in a little more.