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Preps never fail to impress at Oregon Sports Awards

by: JOHN LARIVIERE - Sunset High's Cameron Stitt (left) talks with ESPN's Neil Everett about his Prep Boys Swimmer of the Year Award, as Stitt is honored during Sunday's 61st Oregon Sports Awards at Nike's Tiger Woods Center.Every year since the Portland Tribune helped launch the Oregon Sports Awards in 2002, it has been my pleasure, privilege — and challenge — to comb through the lengthy qualifications of hundreds of high school athletes.

It makes you a believer.

Go through the resumes of these young people and you'll believe that they are going to do great things in life, long after they hang up their uniforms.

My colleagues at the Oregon Sports Awards, who help put together our annual show at Nike's Tiger Woods Center, can attest to the prowess our state produces each year in high school athletics. We know how many hours and how much effort that high school athletes put into their sports, and how much support they must have from family, coaches and community.

The results are impressive.

by: JOHN LARIVIERE - Ariel Viera accepts the Prep Girls Soccer Player of the Year Award at the Oregon Sports Awards.Reading or compiling one athlete's bio after another, the statistics and achievements alone are eye-popping. Undefeated seasons. State titles. National titles. State or national records. World championship competition. A U.S. Open. Scholarships to major colleges.

But, with many of these high school athletes, this is only part of the story. Most of them are busy outside of athletics and have maintained excellent grades, despite the time demands of sports.

The Oregon Sports Awards is our way of recognizing what they and the people around them have been able to achieve.

by: JOHN LARIVIERE - Calvin Hermanson, Lake Oswego High basketball player, gives thanks for being named Prep Boys Baksetball Player of the Year in the state in 2012.From specific criteria, including honors such as all-state, automatic nominees are determined in each Oregon Sports Awards prep category.

From those lists, semifinalists and then finalists and winners are determined by an expert panel and statewide voting.

Every year, making cuts isn't easy. And our OSA voters will tell you that making the final choices can be very hard, too — because everyone in the field has outstanding credentials and is worthy of an award.

by: JOHN LARIVIERE - Heppner High's Baily Bennett is awarded the Johnny Carpenter Prep Athlete of the Year trophy for Class 4A-3A-2A-1A girls at the Oregon Sports Awards.Just being a nominee or semifinalist takes exemplary accomplishments. For the calendar year 2012, for example, the list of those who just missed the finals included many with incredible stories — awesome talents such as Molalla High's Claire Thomas and Blanchet Catholic's Allie Butterfield, to name just two.

Thomas starred in track and field, soccer and basketball for 4A Molalla. She had the state's best marks (for all classifications) in the long jump (19 feet, 1 1/2 inches) and 300-meter hurdles (43.85 seconds). She has committed to run track at the University of Oregon.

Her other extracurricular activities include National Honor Society, student leadership council, Key Club, Anti-Bullying Club, Art Club and volunteer work at a senior center and at blood drives, clothing drives and canned food drives.

A rival coach, Tom Crabtree of Summit High in Bend, was so moved by Thomas' performances that he wrote in support of her: "The first time I saw Claire run, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. My jaw dropped when I saw her running the 100-meter high hurdles. I simply had never seen a high school kid exhibit such good form."

Crabtree noted that Thomas, who is listed at 5-5 or 5-6, has to make up as much as 12 yards over the course of a 300 hurdles race competing against taller competitors with longer strides.

"But Claire does it, and makes it look easy," he said.

On top of all that, Crabtree remarked that "I have been impressed with how friendly she is with the other competitors."

Butterfield overcame a late-season concussion to lead Blanchet Catholic's softball team to the 3A title in 2012. She is playing as a freshman for Arizona State.

Her high school coach, Jerry Orlando, calls Butterfield "a natural leader."

He's coached seven players who went on to become college All-Americans at various levels.

"Allie could be that eighth player," he says.

Ultimately, though, the Oregon Sports Awards process reaches the finalist stage and then comes up with winners from the previous calendar year.

I'd like to share with you just some of the notes we accumulated on these top student-athletes of 2012 (with apologies to the winners and finalists not mentioned in this column):

• Leadership is a quality mentioned frequently in regard to these high school stars.

In that respect and more, soccer player Ben Field, a finalist for the top male athlete in his sport, has left his mark at Riverdale High in Portland. Field had 21 goals and 11 assists in leading the Mavericks to their first state title in any sport. But he brought more than that to the team.

"A wonderful person and quality human being," Riverdale soccer coach Tendu Sherpa says . "He embodies qualities of a leader, projecting himself as a role model among his teammates. He acts to put others as a priority above himself; he embraces challenges and overcomes them. As a leader, he galvanizes others to rise to new heights."

• Many of the high school candidates make their school or city a better place outside of competition.

Wil Cochrane made the three-man finals for Prep Boys Tennis Player of the Year after graduating in 2012 from Phoenix High — where he was the school's only tennis player. He is competing at Portland State.

During his last year at Phoenix, a close family friend was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Cochrane put on a fundraiser tournament for cancer awareness as his senior project. He was able to give the local chapter of the American Cancer Society the largest donation of the year by an individual, after generating more than $500 through the event.

• Some of these prep athletes had to overcome adversity or injury.

Gladstone's Amber Jensen was one of the three finalists for Prep Girls Soccer Player of the Year. She got there after playing her senior season — and leading the Gladiators to the state 4A title — on an injured ankle.

Her detached ligaments and cracked bone forced her to wear a brace or have her ankle severely taped every day. Still, she produced 37 goals and 14 assists in 17 games. And her numbers might have been astronomical if her league didn't have a seven-goal rule, which cut games short throughout her four-year career.

"A truly special player," says Steve Thomas, Gladstone coach.

• Most of those on Oregon Sports Awards high school awards ballot tasted victory — a lot.

All three finalists for the Prep Wrestler of the Year Award went through their high school careers with three or fewer losses, and each won four state titles along the way.

Newberg's Peter Russo already is competing for Stanford at 133 pounds.

At Newberg, he not only was Senior Athlete of the Year but he also won the Carolyn DeCrevel Award for citizenship, character and athletic achievement. He posted a 4.0 GPA and earned an honors diploma and was valedictorian. His other achievements while at Newberg included coaching and mentoring at Newberg Mat Club, counseling youth at wrestling camps and volunteering for one year on Extreme Home Makeover.

• Churchill's Zac Brunson, the Oregon Sports Awards Prep Wrestler of the Year, did lose once in high school — to a state champion from Cleveland High, Eric Luna. Brunson lost to Luna 12-9 when Luna was a senior and Brunson was a freshman.

• Another OSA wrestling finalist, Joey Delgado from Hermiston, was 197-3 — and he came close to missing out on a state title 2011, when he took a headbutt from his opponent in the state semifinals, needed eight stitches in his mouth and almost lost on blood time. He wore a face mask in the finals to protect his cut and swollen lip.

by: JOHN LARIVIERE - Volleyball standout Tani Stephens from West Albany High gives her acceptance speech at the Oregon Sports Awards on Sunday after being named the top high school player in her sport for 2012.• The Oregon Sports Awards prep candidates generally include those athletes who have won Gatorade Player of the Year awards. Gatorade considers academics and character, as well as athletics.

Tani Stephens of West Albany won both the Gatorade and OSA awards as the state's top volleyball player, after leading the Bulldogs to the 5A state title. She finished 2012 with a 3.74 GPA and has on her resume volunteer work as a math tutor, youth gymnastics coach and worker at a local Christmas Storybook Land.

• Some of the Oregon Sports Awards prep contenders come from families with a history of athletic achievement.

One example this year was McNary High's Hailey Decker, a finalist for Prep Softball Player of the Year.

Decker, who is expected to start this spring at second base for Nebraska, is the daughter of former major league catcher Steve Decker. He played for the San Francisco Giants, Florida Marlins, Colorado Rockies of Los Angeles Angels and managed the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies in 2010 and 2011. He is coordinator of minor league hitting for the Giants.

Hailey Decker began working on her swing when she was about 4 years old and has credited her dad for her hitting ability — the 5-4 infielder batted .633 as a senior, with 12 doubles, one triple, three home runs and 31 RBIs (in 60 at-bats plus 25 walks).

by: JOHN LARIVIERE - Oshay Dunmore, former track and field and football star at Newport High, is honored at the Oregon Sports Awards, with trophy presenter and two-time Olympic individual fencing champion Mariel Zagunis in the background.• Portland-area readers might not have heard much about some of the high school finalists, but they probably will get to know them better in the next few years.

Consider Newport High's Oshay Dunmore, who won the Johnny Carpenter Prep Athlete of the Year Award for Class 4A-3A-2A-1A boys at Sunday's Oregon Sports Awards after a standout Cubs career.

Dunmore had firsts in the long and triple jumps and seconds in the pole vault and discuss at the 2012 4A track and field championships. He also played quarterback and defensive back, rushing for 2,134 yards and 25 touchdowns and averaging 7.2 tackles as a senior. He was all-state on both sides of the ball.

After graduation, he joined the football program at Oregon. A 6-2, 195-pound defensive back, he redshirted as a freshman, and has hopes of getting onto the field soon in one form or another.

• Oregon Sports Awards voters liked the big season that Sarah Kaunitz had during her one year with Lake Oswego, before moving to California.

Last year, as a Lakers sophomore, she swam personal bests in winning the 200 individual medley and 100 breaststroke at the 6A state meet, and helped LO win the 200 and 400 freestyle relays as well. Lake Oswego challenged Jesuit for the team title, finishing second.

Kaunitz came to the Lakers as an accomplished club swimmer — but in this day and age, nearly all the top athletes in every high school sport compete in club, AAU or other ways outside of their prep season, with club or private coaching, camps and training opportunities. The high school season for most successful preps has become just a continuation of their club or outside career.

• Kristan Holding, from Damascus Christian, was a finalist for the Prep Female Track and Field Athlete of the Year Award. She dominated at the 1A level — scoring an all-time 1A-record 152 points (second-best at any level) in four state meets — and was her class valedictorian, with a 4.0 GPA. Teammates voted her Most Inspirational her last three years.

by: JOHN LARIVIERE - Carson Kelly, who is going from Westview High to the St. Louis Cardinals organization, gives thanks as he receives the Prep Baseball Player of the Year Award at the Oregon Sports Awards.• Carson Kelly, the OSA Prep Baseball Player of the Year, has gone from Westview High to the St. Louis Cardinals organization. He picked pro ball over the Oregon Ducks, after the Cards gave him a reported signing bonus of $1.6 million, well above the slotted $574,300 he was set to receive as the 86th overall pick in the major league draft.

Kelly, 6-2, 200 pounds, was projected as a third baseman this season for the Johnson City (Tenn.) Cardinals of the rookie level Appalachian League. He went on to play 56 games for them, hitting .225, with nine home runs, 10 doubles and 25 RBIs in 213 at-bats.

• Sulman Raza, the Prep Boys Golfer of the Year from South Eugene, hasn't gone far — in terms of distance — to continue his career in college. He is playing for the University of Oregon, where his adopted mother is a professor of international studies. His adopted father, who was born in Pakistan, is a former professional cricket player who now runs a soccer store.

by: JOHN LARIVIERE - The Prep Boys Golfer of the Year, Sulman Raza (left) from South Eugene High, tells Oregon Sports Awards host Neil Everett of ESPN who he would rather play with, Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy (answer: Woods).Born in Lithuania, Raza wants to major in landscape architecture. While he would love to play professional golf someday, he also is interested in a possible career as a golf course architect.

He speaks fluent French, and thanks largely to his mom's work at the U of O, he has been able to travel to or play golf in numerous countries, including Japan, China, Malaysia, Vietnam, India, Kenya, South Africa, Brazil Cuba, South Africa and Scotland. He first swung a golf club at age 3, began taking lessons at 6, launched his Oregon Golf Association junior career at 8 and began winning regularly, even with his academics and the community service requirements of his French Immersion program, which even took him to Paris for a week.

For one of his senior projects at South Eugene, he created plans — with blueprints — for redesigning a green at Emerald Valley Golf Club in Creswell.

• Sheldon's Jackson Darland was a finalist for the Prep Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year Award. He won the OSAA 6A state championship race by eight seconds, leading the Irish to fourth place, their best finish ever.

"Without a doubt one of the most talented individuals I have ever coached, but what makes him special is his fearless pursuit to be great at everything he does," says Sheldon coach Brayce Forsha.

But that is only the start when talking about Darland's accomplishments while in high school.

Darland was editor and chief of the school newspaper. He did volunteer work helping low-income, mostly Spanish-speaking fourth-graders at Fairfield Elementary School learn to read (he is fluent in Spanish and Japanese, and spent one sophomore semester in Chile, doing community service). He tutored middle-school students in various subjects, volunteered with Headstart in Eugene and spent countless hours over the past few years personally tending to needed house and yard work at the home of a senior citizen in the area.

He also was vice president of the Key Club, a service group that grew from 30 members to 100 in two years under Darland's leadership. The Key Club put on a community race that raised money for an orphanage in Thailand, organized burrito feeds for the homeless in Eugene, staged a sock and glove drive for a Hosea House homeless youth shelter and worked in the Grassroots Garden, which benefits Food for Lane County.

His activity list at Sheldon also includes the Iceaxemen Mountaineering Club (he is an avid rock climber), Spanish Club and Young Life.

Also, notes Coach Forsha, "he's the oldest of four kids, the youngest being 5 years old, and spends a great deal of time with them," including farm chores such as tending to animals, putting up fences and mending the barn.

Oh, and he spends an hour or more every day at the piano, which he has played for 10 years, while teaching others to play and playing with a local band. He also plays violin and guitar and has had formal training in painting and drawing.

"Jackson is one of the top three most humble, respectful and honorable young men I have ever met," says Dane Tornell, executive director of Umpqua Valley Youth for Christ and former director of the Iceaxemen mountaineering school. "I have worked with more than 2,500 young people in 16 years — he is on the top. A natural, loving leader and wonderful, patient teacher with the younger students."

by: JOHN LARIVIERE - South Eugene High's state cross country champion, Sara Tsai, tells a story as she accepts her award during Sunday's 61st Oregon Sports Awards at Nike's Tiger Woods Center.• While the Oregon Sports Awards candidates and finalists often tend to be seniors, sometimes they are younger, with the promise of more to come.

A case in point: South Eugene's Sara Tsai, who won the 6A state cross country title in November as a sophomore with the second-fastest time ever in the event.

Like most of the OSA prep contenders, Tsai isn't one to boast or make a big deal of her accomplishments.

"Sara is humble, kind and balanced," South Eugene coach Jeff Hess says.

She was voted Most Inspirational by her teammates, has a 4.0 GPA and is active in student government and journalism.

"She is the perfect ambassador for the sport and a benefit to any group she is part of," Hess says.

• Crook County has been a hotbed for volleyball for years, and fans of the Cowgirls won't forget Makayla Lindburg, one of three finalists for the OSA Prep Volleyball Player of the Year Award.

"A true leader," says coach Rosie Honl, whose team won the 4A title in 2012, the program's seventh consecutive state crown. "She is a hard worker who is willing to spend the time to help other athletes improve their skills. Makayla has the ability to lift the team with her play and confidence on the court. She is a selfless athlete who has always been focused on what is best for our team and program."

Honl says perhaps the most impressive thing about Lindburg the player is "how few mistakes she makes. She rarely hits a ball out of bounds or into the net and is seldom blocked."

Lindburg played on four state championship teams. She also became the first Crook County to player to sign with a Division I school — she will play for the University of Portland.

"An outstanding athlete. Her offensive and defensive skills are uncanny," Honl says. "She makes playing look effortless and has a lot of fun while on the court."