High school athletes who are among the finest in the suburbs were saluted in an awards ceremony befitting professionals Thursday night at Sears Centre Arena in Hoffman Estates.
About 1,000 students, their parents and others filled the Sears Centre floor for the sixth annual Daily Herald Prep Sports Excellence Awards. The fun began with a buffet dinner and the collection of gifts, followed by a grand entrance by Naperville Central High School's drum line and the celebration of the student-athletes from 68 high schools covered by the Daily Herald.
Jarrett Payton, an alum of St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights whose sports media work includes being host of CLTV's "Sports Feed," was the evening's guest speaker. The son of late Bears Hall of Famer Walter Payton was a stellar high school soccer and football player.
Payton told the crowd how his father sparked his passion to help others at a young age. He also spoke about on how his dad designed a plan that mostly required him to give up fun with friends over a summer for intense workouts to become a better running back and attract football scholarships from prominent colleges.
"I sacrificed going into that senior year and worked my tail off to be able to have an opportunity to go to the University of Miami, where I had a chance to win a national championship," Payton said. "For me, the sacrifice, it was something that when you're passionate it, you don't have to really sacrifice because you love what you do."
Daily Herald sports columnists Patricia Babcock McGraw and Joe Aguilar co-hosted the extravaganza. Five categories of winners were announced.
High school athletic directors nominated five senior female and male athletes who were considered their most fitting representatives of excellence in sports.
Libertyville High School's Drew Peterson's won a Sweetest Moment award for a regional final basketball game against Conant High School. After struggling for the first three quarters, the Wildcats star and deadly long-range shooter scored 20 of his team's 23 points in the fourth and won it in overtime with an off-balance 3-point shot at the buzzer.
"I actually wasn't expecting this award," Peterson said. "But, yeah, that was one of the craziest games I ever played, and I really appreciate the award."
Geneva High School's Stephanie Hart received the other Sweetest Moment award.
Wauconda High School's Annalyse Maze received an Overcoming Obstacles honor for playing at a high level on the girls soccer team after an anterior cruciate ligament injury in 2016. This year, she helped lead the squad to the Class 2A sectionals after a regular season that featured 13 shutouts in the regular season.
Zach Upp, who was born without a right hand, received his Overcoming Obstacles award for thriving on Wheaton Academy's volleyball team.
With a list of achievements including being a three-sport standout and a co-founder of the Maroon Buddies program dedicated to enriching opportunities for those with developmental disabilities, Elgin High School's Kylie Graves received a Heart and Soul award. Graves, the top-ranked student in her class, was captain of the girls basketball team for three consecutive years.
Zach Damenti of Lakes Community High School in Lake Villa also received a Heart and Soul award. Football became a crucial element in his development after he was diagnosed at an early age with high-functioning autism.
Buffalo Grove High School tennis player Dasha Ignatova and basketball star Jack Vaselaney received the Spirit of Sportsmanship award shared by each gender. They were among the founding members of Buffalo Grove's Elevate program, which was the result of their participation in a national effort called "Life of an Athlete."
Elevate members began sharing ideas including practical and helpful guidance on what athletes should avoid and embrace in pursuit of optimal performance
Beyond the Bench awards went to baseball coach Robin Renner of Neuqua Valley High School and