SEBRING — The best athletes in Highlands County shed their jerseys in favor of suits, dresses, and the occasional bow tie on Saturday night, as even the fiercest of competitors managed to quell their rivalries for an evening of praise and recognition.
They gathered for the third annual All-Highlands Parade of Athletes Banquet, which drew a crowd of over 700 to the Highlands Today Center. The event honored county teens for their athletic endeavors over the 2013-14 school year.
“It was a great turnout,” said Highlands Today sports editor Mark Pinson. “I’m so proud to be a part of this and am honored to recognize these great young athletes on stage.”
Pinson, who served as one the evening’s emcees, handed out plaques and certificates to athletes who made the All-Highlands Teams. The teams, which encompass 25 sports for boys and girls, as well as cheerleading, were compiled by coaches from Sebring, Avon Park, and Lake Placid.
The evening concluded with the announcement of the Male and Female Athletes of the Year — Avon Park’s Alfred Brown and Lake Placid’s Breauna Corley. Along with their bevy of trophies, Brown and Corley each received a scholarship donation of $750. Their award was part of $6,000 in total scholarship money handed out on behalf of the Firemen.
Athletes from the Ridge Area Arc Special STARS were honored on stage as well, and the group received a standing ovation from the crowd.
Spirit Awards went to the senior cheerleaders from each school who showed the most school spirit. Lake Placid’s Christian Crawford, Avon Park’s Caylie Wall, and Sebring’s Summer Lewis were this year’s recipients.
But the awards went beyond the playing fields.
Avon Park’s Charles Council, Lake Placid’s Hannah Waller, Sebring’s Jared Lang, and Walker Memorial Academy’s Breauna Washington all took home Character Awards for their exemplary sportsmanship.
Athletes were recognized for their hard work in the classroom as well. The Academic Athlete Award went to the student athlete from each school with the highest GPA. Giovanni Hernandez represented Avon Park with a 5.24. Claire LeBlanc captured the honor for Lake Placid with a 5.44. While Sebring’s Lang had the highest GPA for a county athlete with a 5.68.
The banquet’s keynote speaker was Eric Zwayer. a former standout student athlete and 1999 graduate of Sebring High School. Zwayer, who’s collegiate career at the University of Richmond was marred by a serious back injury, spoke on the value of humility, hard work, and overcoming failure.
“Everyone’s failed at one point or another,” he said. “I’ve failed. But it’s how we react and respond to that failure that makes us who we are.”
After college, Zwayer returned to his hometown, where he currently serves as the Highlands County tax collector. The embodiment of overcoming adversity, Zwayer quoted from an array of notable Americans who overcame sizeable hurdles, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Michael Jordan, Vince Lombardi, and Gen. George S. Patton.
The Parade of Athletes emerged from a joint venture between the Highlands Today and the Firemen. It evolved from the Highlands Today sister paper, the Tampa Tribune, which has a similar awards ceremony for high school athletes in Hillsborough County.
After three successful collaborations, along with growing attendance and increasing scholarship funds, the paper and the Firemen are looking forward to future celebrations of area athletes.