Suburban high school student-athletes basked in the spotlight Monday night at Sears Centre Arena in Hoffman Estates.
Prospect High School's marching band and cheerleaders set the tone for a spirited crowd of about 1,000 when they started the fifth annual Daily Herald Prep Sports Excellence Awards. The fun evening, which included a buffet dinner and gifts, celebrated 611 teenage athletes representing 25 sports from 65 high schools.
High school athletic directors nominated their top five senior female and male athletes who were considered their most fitting representatives of excellence in sports.
Daily Herald sports writers Patricia Babcock McGraw and Joe Aguilar co-hosted the festivities. Five categories of winners were announced.
In the Overcoming Obstacles category, one of the winners was Elgin High School boys gymnastics team member Nolan Williamson, who broke his neck last summer but returned to snag the all-around state championship.
Williamson credited his family and friends for assisting in his comeback.
"Not being in the gym at practice was the worst," he said. "When I finally got back into the gym, it was nonstop."
Libertyville High School girls basketball players Claire and Kelly Keefe, who are twins, were the other Overcoming Obstacles winners. Kelly, who has coped with health problems that prevented her from playing basketball, became the team manager and served as her sister's biggest backer.
In the Sweetest Moment category, Geneva High School's Grace Loberg was lauded for helping the girls basketball program win its first state championship. She needed to cover about 200 feet in a walking boot on her right foot to accept the award.
"It's so exciting to be here," Loberg said. "Winning state was, for sure, my favorite moment of high school."
Another Sweetest Moment winner was Jordan Rowell of IC Catholic Prep in Elmhurst, a supremely talented running back who helped his team to post an undefeated season and capture a state title.
Grayslake Central High School's running triplets -- Jack, Matt and Elizabeth Aho -- took one of the Spirit of Sportsmanship awards. The other went to Buffalo Grove High School's boys basketball squad for donating personal time to help less-fortunate families over the holiday season.
Barrington High School's Mitch Gavars, who was on the swimming and water polo teams, was recognized in the Heart and Soul category. Gavars' mother died in the middle of his sports season, but that didn't keep him from remaining a force of optimism for his school and teammates.
Marlee Kyles, girls basketball player at Elgin's Larkin High School, took home the other Heart and Soul award. Kyles was one of her area's top scorers on a so-so squad, but elevated herself to become the best possible kind of teammate.
Coach of the Year winners were Tom McCormack, leader of the boys basketball team at Conant High School in Hoffman Estates, and Barb Barrows, athletic director of Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville.
"I've dedicated the last 33 years to education and athletics," Barrows said. "In my opinion, there's no place better place than being at a high school sporting event."
Daily Herald Media Group director of event marketing Karyn Kraske said the excellence awards -- held on a Monday night for the first time instead of Sunday afternoon -- drew a record turnout. She said the prep sports bash has grown in stature in the suburban prep sports world.
"The enthusiasm and excitement has really developed with the event," Kraske said.