The booming drum section of Prospect High School's Marching Knights band got things started with a rousing performance that evoked the unique thrill of high-school athletics.
After that, the athletes themselves became the focus. More than 600 competitors representing 32 sports were honored Sunday at the second annual Daily Herald Prep Sports Excellence banquet, held at the Sears Centre Arena in Hoffman Estates.
The banquet gave the young athletes, as well as their families, a chance to reflect on the successes of the past and the challenges that await in the future.
"I feel very honored," said Geneva High School senior Ben Chally, a third baseman and pitcher on the school's baseball team. "To sit here with other athletes considered to be among the best in their games is pretty amazing."
Chally plans to attend Trevecca Nazorine University in Nashville next year, and he hopes to play baseball there. His mother, Mary Beth Chally, said it was a "joy" to attend the banquet with him.
"He's been playing baseball since he was 6 years old," she said. "I feel blessed to see him now at this level."
Matt Mayberry, a former member of the Chicago Bears whose promising football career was cut short by a severe ankle injury, delivered the keynote speech at the banquet. Now a well-known motivational speaker, Mayberry said setbacks and failure happen to everyone, but he encouraged the young men and women in the arena not to let that keep them from striving.
"You have to make it OK to fail," he said. "The fear of failure kills more dreams than anything else."
New to the banquet this year was the presentation of special awards in four categories. Each award was given to two recipients.
Caitlin Inamoto of Barrington High School was one of the winners of the Overcoming Obstacles Award. Inamoto, who moved to Barrington from New Jersey last summer, plays on the varsity softball team despite having the use of only one arm. (Her twin sister, Jennifer, also plays on the team.)
"I was shocked to be picked for this, especially since I'm so new here," she said. "But I'm very grateful. It's a wonderful feeling."
Westminster Christian School in Elgin received one of the Spirit of Sportsmanship awards. Westminster fielded its first varsity football team in the fall. After a series of dispiriting losses, the team earned its first win when it rallied around quarterback Max Tucker, whose father was fighting cancer. Tucker threw for 247 yards in the team's victory against Christian Liberty Academy.
"I can't believe how someone could play like that, going through what he was going through," Tucker's coach, John Davis, said after the banquet. "His resilience -- it was amazing to watch."
Also winning awards on Sunday:
• Johnathan Harrell of Aurora Christian School won the other Overcoming Obstacles award for an inspiring performance on the basketball court in a Christmas tournament less than 24 hours after his brother was killed in a car accident.
• Elise Titiner and the rest of the Metea Valley High School softball team won the other Spirit of Sportsmanship award for raising money for those affected by pediatric cancer.
• The first Dazzling Moment Award went to two legendary volleyball coaches, Peg Kopec of St. Francis High School in Wheaton and Jean Field of IC Catholic Prep in Elmhurst, both of whom led their teams to state titles. The second went to Stevenson High School junior Jalen Brunson, who scored 56 points in a dazzling performance against Whitney Young in the state basketball tournament.
• The Heart and Soul Award went to Prospect High School golfer Noreen Caporusso and Naperville Central High School football player Mike Kolzow. Caporusso returned from a serious knee injury to help lead her team to a state title. Kolzow took potentially lifesaving action on the way to school one winter morning, when he brought an elderly man suffering from dementia out of the bitter cold and into his car before dialing 911 for assistance.