It was a night for champions, the 27th annual Northeast Sports Awards Banquet, where star athletes and their coaches were called one by one to the podium to be recognized for their prowess in high school sports.
Out of uniform, the boys in ties and the girls in fancy heels waited shyly with hunched shoulders and hands clasped in front of them as their achievements were read aloud. Yet, you knew that each of them, when they uncoiled those muscles, could run with the grace of a gazelle, leap like they had springs in their feet, or crush a baseball with the swing of a bat.
Most of the Public and Catholic League athletes brave enough to approach the microphone Wednesday night thanked the Northeast Times and the Frankford Northeast Rotary Club, sponsors of the banquet, for the honors. Some went on to thank their coaches and families for unwavering guidance, and a few thanked God for giving them the talent.
The keynote speaker, Dr. John Giannini, head men’s basketball coach at La Salle University, told the high school coaches to “never forget how critical you are to your kids. Often, you are one of the first persons who believed in them.”
And for those about to graduate to college careers, he offered this advice on how to manage the newfound freedom: Know when to have fun, and when to be serious.
A good education matters, he said. Over a lifetime, “your athleticism will leave you. What you learn, you’ll always have with you.”
The banquet at Cannstatter’s at 9130 Academy Road drew upwards of 150 people and celebrated the value of honest competition, good sportsmanship, the need for mentors and making good grades. When the students approached the podium for their plaques, many of their parents sneaked up, too, with cameras at the ready.
For the newspaper, the night was the payoff for a three-member team that had been working since November to select the winners and pull the program together. And it was a time, too, for Rotary president Margaret Kelly to speak with passion and authority about that organization’s service projects around the globe.
For a table filled with girls soccer players from Franklin Towne Charter, who had earlier that afternoon defeated Central High, 2-1, to end that team’s 10-year win streak, it was a time to feel invincible. They had just captured stardust in a cup and were to be forgiven for their lack of modesty in the moment.
“Put us in the paper,” one girl said, and I promised we would.
You had to cheer, too, for students like Kevin Nelms, the male scholar-athlete of the year, who carries a perfect 4.0 grade point average at Archbishop Ryan High School and will head off to Penn State with hopes of becoming an engineer.
And who wasn’t applauding Softball Coach of the Year Dave Schafer and another award winner, pitcher Erica Ragazzone, both of Saint Hubert High School, who kept their eyes on the ball despite knowing their school was targeted for extinction, and then won a last-minute reprieve.
Perhaps it was Ursula Coyle of Little Flower High School (and Catholic League Girls Soccer Player of the Year), who summed it up best. She said her coach, Markos Pittaoulis, also an award winner, had given his players some advice that took her awhile to believe was true.
What had he told them?
“The game is all in the heart.”
Lillian Swanson is executive editor of the Northeast Times. She can be reached at 215-354-3030 or firstname.lastname@example.org