The new head coach has been in constant contact with players to develop a better understanding of the team

Chris Neal believes in the UNCW women’s soccer team. He wouldn’t have come back to the Port City otherwise.

Since being announced as the program’s new head coach on July 3, Neal has worked constantly to get to know his players. For the last 10 days, he says the phone has “been stuck to my head” for calls and conversations in an attempt to build trust quickly.

“I see a hard working group, a very passionate group, a very intelligent group of student-athletes,” Neal said during his introductory press conference on Friday. “Our coaching staff has to communicate a tremendous amount of belief in them from Day 1, and I communicated that on the phone with them the first chance I had to speak with them, too. That trust will build in time.”

Neal takes over a program undergoing major transition. Longtime head coach Paul Cairney was let go in late June following an investigation into decades old sexual assault allegations. No charges against Cairney were filed by the New Hanover County District Attorney. Neal did note he has not spoken to Cairney since being hired.

The New Hanover alum has deep ties to UNCW, having served as a student assistant in 1995, a volunteer assistant for both the men’s and women’s programs from 2001-04 and as an assistant for Cairney from 2005-07. He spent 10 seasons as the head coach of the Elon women’s team and moved to Fayetteville, Ark., in January to work as an assistant for Arkansas. He signed a three-year contract worth $75,000 per season. Neal becomes the fifth UNCW head coach on contract at the school joining C.B. McGrath, Karen Barefoot, Mark Scalf and Aidan Heaney.

Familiarity with the area, the program and even some of the players made the decision to come home a simple one for Neal and his family.

“Of all the transitions I’ve made, this is certainly the easiest in that respect,” Neal said. “Being familiar with the town, being familiar with the university, being very familiar with the conference and actually I was very fortunate to have coached a handful of these kids when they were younger. I was also very fortunate to have recruited quite a few of them. There’s a large percentage of this team that I’m already familiar with.”

Thanks to the work of former assistant Justin Bryant and the conditioning staff, Neal inherits a team physically ready for the rigors of training when August rolls around.

He plans to rely on the veteran players to get him up to speed and hopes to build on the tradition that’s been established within the program. During his introductory conference call, Neal asked players to text him their contact info. It’s all about building relationships and he’s hard at work doing just that.

“Within 24 hours I think he had had a conversation with every one of the returning players and I think he had touched base with the five incoming recruits,” UNCW athletic director Jimmy Bass said. “That was done immediately. Obviously we wanted to make sure they were informed. It’s been a very, very smooth transition.”

Reporter Alex Riley can be reached at 910-343-2034 or Alex.Riley@StarNewsOnline.com.