Zander Neuville had dreamed of suiting up for the University of Wisconsin football team for as long as he can remember.
It looked like that dream wouldn’t come true for the Waupaca High School senior after the Badgers didn’t offer the three-sport athlete a scholarship or preferred walk-on status earlier this year.
However, that all changed with one recent phone call.
Waupaca football coach John Koronkiewicz received a call at school from Wisconsin assistant coach Ben Strickland, who asked if he thought Neuville might be interested in Wisconsin’s offer to be a preferred walk-on. Preferred walk-ons are assured of a spot on a team, but are not offered a scholarship.
“Coach came down, gave me (Strickland’s) number and told me to call him back,” Neuville said. “I called him around lunch time and that’s when he offered me the spot. I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m really interested, I’m just going to talk to my parents and then I’ll call you back.’ I called him back later that evening.”
It turns out Neuville was very interested, even though he committed to play football at Minnesota State in Mankato after the Badgers didn’t come calling at first.
“I was thinking the week before, ‘It’s really late and if anything happened, I’d be really surprised,’” he said. “When the coach called me that day and offered, I was totally surprised.”
“It took longer than we wanted to take, but sometimes you just have to recognize that things are supposed to work out the way they’re intended to work out,” Koronkiewicz said. “In this case, it took a little longer. We wanted it to happen in February and it took until April.
“I think Zander was disappointed initially in not being offered a scholarship and preferred walk-on status. Like all things in life, you just have to take another step forward,” he added. “He had made the arrangements to go to Mankato, but when this opportunity arose, I knew that this was what Zander wanted. It was really kind of a no-brainer for him to make this decision and go where he wanted to go from the very beginning.”
By accepting the Badgers’ offer, Neuville became the second player from the 2013 Comet team to have the opportunity to play Division 1 football. Nate Jenson signed a National Letter of Intent earlier this year to play at North Dakota State.
Neuville won’t be the first Comet to head to Madison to play football.
Jason Levine eventually won a Rose Bowl ring as a senior outside linebacker following the 1993 season, while Eric Peterson spent a year in Madison in the late 1990s as a preferred walk-on.
“I was pretty excited to go to Mankato,” Neuville said. “They have a good program, really strong. I was pretty much getting ready to set everything in stone and then the Badgers came in. It was always a dream of mine, so once I got that opportunity, it was kind of a no-brainer.”
Although a case of mononucleosis cut his senior season short, Neuville was still named the Eastern Valley Conference’s defensive player of the year. He also made the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association’s all-state first team as an inside linebacker.
“We knew he was a pretty good player last year,” Koronkiewicz said. “He had played outside linebacker, which gave him some cover skills. We moved him to inside linebacker, which really was an adjustment. I think he’s more suited to play on the perimeter and be that guy on the edge. As far as a football player, he was an outstanding player in our league. He proved that by being named the defensive player of the year and first-team all-state recognition at linebacker.”
Once he recovered from mono, Neuville went on to earn first-team all-conference honors in basketball. He’s also out for baseball this spring and will graduate in May as class valedictorian.
“My parents always stressed that grades always come first,” Neuville said. “I think the work ethic in the classroom really helps, too. Once you have a work ethic in class, it’s a lot easier to balance and play three sports. I’m hoping that’ll carry over into college and help me.”
He plans to study business at Madison. He’ll spend most of the summer there working out with the team, but he’ll also play in all-star basketball and football games as well.
“The coaches helped me out and I was in the weight room a lot, too,” Neuville said. “A lot of coaches started talking to me in my junior year for college. Having a good team helped, but the coaches put me in the right spot and it just kind of worked out that I had a really good senior year.”
“What I always told recruiters is that Zander is just starting to reach his potential,” Koronkiewicz said. “The upside is immensely high. He has a college body at 6-5, 225 pounds. I’m sure he’ll add to that. Once he starts to focus on just one sport, in this case football, he’ll develop into an outstanding player. You have to remember he’s a three-sport star for us and that takes a lot of time. Now, he gets to focus on one sport and his academics. He has the potential to play a couple of different positions, from defensive end to linebacker in their 3-4 scheme. I think he’s athletic enough to eventually get on the field.”
Neuville hopes to follow in the footsteps of another local player that headed to Madison as a preferred walk-on.
Jared Abbrederis, a Wautoma High School standout who quarterbacked the Hornets to a state football championship, eventually earned a scholarship and became the Badgers’ top wide receiver.
“Wisconsin is known for walk-ons,” Neuville said. “It definitely can be done. You just have to play with a chip on your shoulder and work really hard.”
“I personally think there should have been more people breaking down the door to get to this guy,” Koronkiewicz said. “Unfortunately, that’s not always the way it works. This is obviously a dream come true for Zander, the coaching staff, the football team and the community. We’re very happy for him and very proud.”
“It’s kind of surreal that this happened,” Neuville said. “They’re recruiting some really good players. I can’t wait to be a part of that team and become a better player myself.
“I can’t wait to go and prove that I belong down there,” he added. “I’m going to work my hardest and hopefully good things will come.”