By Ken Jackson
The School District of Osceola County’s seventh annual athletics banquet Monday saluted its local athletes, coaches and administrators, while also thanking those retiring from service to those same people.
In effect, it showed off the soul of the county’s high school programs.
The event was held, as usual, at the Silver Spurs Arena under the direction of School District Athletics Coordinator Ryan Adams.
“It’s a privilege to have everyone here to the recognize all of you for all you do in the offseason and regular season representing your schools,” he said.
The guest speaker was Steve Landram, who came from Indiana in 1979 and coached football, track, basketball and whatever else was asked of him for at St. Cloud and Harmony high schools for parts of five decades.
“This banquet is a touch of class, the purpose of the evening, and the Silver Spurs do a tremendous job,” he said.
Landram spoke about athletes he coached who “taught me more than I taught them” and who exemplified “being the best version of yourself.”
He noted Chris Bollinger who became a state discus champ in 2011 despite not throwing at all until well into high school.
“He had moderate success as a junior, so I never dreamed of what he’d do as a senior,” he said. “By midseason he was leading the state, and advanced through the district and regionals while I was a nervous wreck about what could go wrong.”
Fast forward to the final round of throws of the state meet, when Bollinger held the lead.
“I’m going crazy. On the last throw, Charles Tidwell of Niceville throws three feet farther than Chris, and it was time to coach,” he said. “I’d like to tell you I gave Chris some highly technical observation, but that didn’t happen. The crowd from Niceville started taunting Chris, an egregious breach of etiquette in track. I told him, ‘Recover and focus.’ He winked at me and said, ‘I got this, coach.’ I go back to the viewing area kicking myself going, ‘Is that all you got, Landram?’ Chris cut loose a beautiful throw, way beyond Tidwell. He’s state champion. At that moment, Chris was the best version of himself.”
Months later, Landram said, Bollinger sat with his family at the hospital while Landram went through a lengthy operation. Landram also told a story about Kelly Smith, who 20 years ago played basketball at St. Cloud. A “program kid,” she gave it all for the Bulldogs, and would give it again for the U.S. military when, on her fifth tour of duty in the Middle East, lost her left arm when a suicide bomber disguised as an interpreter detonated a device.
“I saw her months ago at Crabby Bill’s and when I struggled for what to say, she said, ‘It’s all right coach, I was just doing my job, like I always do,’” he said. “They taught me another way of being the best version of yourself.”
The county recognized former News-Gazette Sports Editor Rick Pedone and retiring St. Cloud High School public address voice George Garber with Lifetime Achievement Awards. The two retired in the past year with a combined 58 years of service to local athletes.
“I had the privilege of attending one of St. Cloud’s basketball games and I heard him and had to find out who it was,” Adams said.
Eight coaches, one from each of the county’s large public high schools, were nominated for the M. Dean Cherry Coach of the Year Award, which this year was given to Celebration High competitive cheer coach Coach Christi Boone, who was not able to make the event. Boone led the Storm cheer team to the Class 2A large team non-tumbling state title. She was the school’s Coach of the Year nominee in 2017 as well.
Also nominated were Gateway baseball coach Jim Moran, Harmony girls soccer coach Scott Marlega, Liberty softball coach Katherin Pennanen, New Dimensions girls weightlifting coach Zulma Arguelles, Osceola girls track and weightlifting coach Eric Pinellas, Poinciana girls soccer coach Jorge Molina and St. Cloud softball coach Ray Whobrey.
Also recognized were the School District’s athletes of the year, both state champions from Osceola.
Virginie Beljour, the Class 2A 100-pound champion weightlifter and a state qualifier in track on the Kowgirls’ 4×800 team, is the Female Athlete of the Year. She also competed in cross country, carries a 3.4 GPA and is a member of the National Honor Society, among her highlights.
She is sifting through a handful of track scholarship offers to find a school, she said.
“I really excited and grateful when I heard because there are a lot of really great athletes in this county,” she said. “All the hard work I’ve done keeps paying off, and I’m really happy to represent Osceola this way.”
Two-time 138-pound state wrestling champion Malyke Hines is the Male Athlete of the Year. A junior with a career high school record of 173-4 and is also a National High School Coaches Association national champ and ranked No. 10 in the nation in his weight class, Hines will go for a three-peat next year.
The county debut its Academic Student Athlete Awards. Both recipients are from Celebration High: girls basketball and flag football player Signe Peterson features a 4.36 weighted GPA in a schedule dotted with AP classes and is on her way to the University of Florida, and boys soccer, track and cross country runner Ayoub Mahdar carries a 4.678 GPA and is in CHS’ International Baccalaureate Program.
The third Mike Fields Distinguished Leadership Award was presented to Gateway swimming and water polo coach Yvonne “Vonnie” Kochensbarger.
Adams said that Kochenberger was an ideal recipient because of how she exemplifies Fields’ commitment to community service, character and work ethic.
Kochensbarger “meets the needs of every student in every level of class she’s taught,” GHS Athletic Director Travis James wrote in her nomination letter.
She also leader in the county’s 4-H horsemanship program and the local Spay the Stray animal rescue group.
The Athletic Director of the Year is Liberty High’s Corey Edwards.
St. Cloud, in a narrow victory over defending champion Harmony, won the Orange Belt Conference All-Sports championship, edging rival St. Cloud by four points. The Bulldogs won seven Orange Belt Conference titles and finished first or second in 11 of the 23 OBC competitions.
St. Cloud also earned the County Academic Achievement award for the second year in a row, as its athletes combined for a cumulative 3.305 GPA. Celebration girls swimming team (3.829) and Gateway boys golf team (3.648) were recognized as the county’s top team GPAs.