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40 years

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In June 1967, the Orioles wore shiny new World Series rings. Baltimore still had pro teams in basketball and ice hockey. And kids listened to pop music on transistor radios tuned to WCAO-AM.

That month, The Evening Sun corralled 18 male "Prep Stars of the Week" at a restaurant atop the downtown Holiday Inn and named its first High School Athlete of the Year.

Times change.

On Tuesday at M&T Bank Stadium, that event will be held for the 40th time. A male and female Athlete of the Year will be selected from among The Sun's 76 weekly winners named during the school year.

Many of the 69 former Athletes of the Year (42 men and 27 women) honored during the past four decades are expected to attend. One of them - Karen Stout, who is now president of Montgomery County Community College (Pa.) - will address the group. Stout, a three-sport standout from Bel Air, broke ground as the newspaper's first female Athlete of the Year in 1978, a time when Title IX was just beginning to open doors for women.

At its start, the ceremony was limited geographically. All 18 hopefuls hailed from inside the Beltway or from private schools in the metro area. They included Tim Nordbrook (Loyola), Sherm Bristow (Gilman), Wayne Jackson (Edmondson) and Lenny Scott (Dunbar).

The judges - then a panel of area high school athletic directors - surprised everyone by bypassing those 18 prospects and selecting as grand winner an athlete who hadn't been singled out during the year. He was Don Russell, of Southern.

Southern has since undergone a name change (Digital Harbor). So has the event. The Evening Sun ceased publishing in 1995.

The sponsor changed, but not the general criteria for choosing the champions. From the beginning, the award has favored athletes who excel in all seasons. For instance, Russell played football, basketball and baseball, as have 10 of the winners who have followed him.

Versatility is emphasized over specialization. In 1983, for instance, the award went to neither of the two future NBA stars from Dunbar High, but to a three-sport standout from Anne Arundel County.

Seated at his table at the banquet, Azizuddin Abdur-Ra'oof, of Northeast High, thought his chances nil.

"[Dunbar's] Reggie Williams was in the running. Muggsy Bogues was there," Abdur-Ra'oof said. "I said, 'I don't have any chance at all.'"

When Abdur-Ra'oof's name was called, "I was stunned," he said. "Do you know who gave me my trophy? Cal Ripken."

At that fete, Ripken was the guest speaker, having been named American League Rookie of the Year in 1982. Four years earlier, as a baseball star at Aberdeen, Ripken had competed for the Athlete of the Year award himself.

Ripken lost. In 1978, the trophy went to Calvin Maddox, a premier basketball player, long jump champion and football ace from Dunbar High.

Small schools, too In 1987, that tri-season excellence thrust Jenny Achziger Gosselin to the head of the pack. A three-sport star, she hailed from Francis Scott Key, a speck in the far western reaches of the metro area.

"I didn't think," she said, "that someone from a small school out in Carroll County would ever win."

As with Maddox, Achziger Gosselin's talents were needed every season.

Call it the Gilman effect.

Gilman School encourages its athletes to play sports year-round, perhaps one reason a record eight Athletes of the Year hail from the private school in North Baltimore. One of them is the only male double-winner - Damien Davis (1998 and 1999).

Only two other schools - Towson and Broadneck - have produced as many as three Athletes of the Year.

Historically, it pays to be a football player. Thirty-five of the 42 male winners played that sport.

Female winners have come from a mix of schools and fall sports, including field hockey, soccer, volleyball and cross country. The latter helped Dulaney's Mandy White Pagon become the first double winner in 1992 and 1993.

While high school accomplishments outweigh potential in the selection of grand champions, most Athletes of the Year combined both. Rosemary Kosiorek Meyer (1988) went from being a three-sport All-Metro athlete at Mercy High to West Virginia, where she was voted the nation's best women's basketball player 5 feet 6 or shorter.

Dunbar's Tommy Polley (1996) helped Florida State to the Sugar Bowl and the St. Louis Rams to the Super Bowl. But he really perks up when talk turns to the city and state titles he won while in high school.

"I was a part of football and basketball teams that had a lot of success," said Polley, the former Raven who is now a free agent. "The fact that we were good, I'm sure that had something to do with me winning [the trophy]."

Making history A few winners have helped change the sports landscape, at home and abroad. Michael Phelps (2001) was a 15-year-old sophomore at Towson High when he first made swimming history. He won six gold medals at the 2004 Games in Athens and is in position to become the first Olympian to win 10 golds.

Besides Phelps, only one other single-sport athlete has been tabbed best of show. That was Darryl Gee, of Oakland Mills. Gee was the Freddy Adu of his day, a soccer bonus baby who in 1980 finished school, helped the U.S. qualify for the Olympics and joined the New York Cosmos.

"I played in 60 countries, on six continents," Gee said. "The game allowed me to see the world."

Closer to home, Bel Air's Jeff Grantz (1972) started at quarterback for three years at South Carolina. No one else from the area in this era has approached his impact at quarterback in major college football.

Western's Dana Johnson (1991) made news by becoming the only woman to coach a boys basketball team in the Baltimore area. Johnson, the only female Athlete of the Year from a city public school, coaches at Southside Academy.

Where are other past grand winners today? They are educators and engineers, economists and entrepreneurs, professionals who rely on the poise they gained on the playing field.

Perry Hall's Alisha McClinton (1997) is a project engineer, one of a handful of women helping build a pharmaceutical plant in Ireland for Johnson & Johnson.

Centennial's Debbie Paladino (1981) is a project manager for IBM who recalled her job interview there:

"We spent more time talking about my relationship to sports, and how I'd been team captain, than about my technical background.

"There's not much in this business that you do by yourself."

Several of them have doctoral degrees, including Stout, Sandy Wilson (Liberty, 1983) and Donna Neale, M.D. A perinatologist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Neale is developing a screening test to identify pregnant women at risk for high blood pressure.

"That's my passion," said Neale, a 1982 graduate of Oakland Mills. "I got interested in that during a fellowship at Yale."

Towson's Jaimee Reynolds (1998) is completing her doctorate in biomedical engineering at the University of Rochester.

All 69 winners survive, though many have been touched by death. Betsy Given Economou (Broadneck, 1990) was inspired by her college coach, Loyola's Diane Geppi-Aikens, to fight through injuries and play three sports for the Greyhounds. When Geppi-Aikens died of cancer in 2003, Given Economou was among the eulogists.

Nearly two dozen, including a slew of teachers, serve their community in some way.

Jerry Roney (Woodlawn, 1988) is a police officer in Baltimore City. Kacy Williams Valentine (Hammond, 1994) teaches seventh grade in Columbia.

From field to sideline Towson's Jack Thomas (1970) swore he wouldn't enter the family business; his father, Bill, was a legendary lacrosse coach and teacher at Towson. But Thomas has spent nearly three decades teaching and coaching, most recently at Centennial High.

Others turned to coaching. Steve Wojciechowski (Cardinal Gibbons, 1994) is a basketball assistant at Duke. Laurie Schwoy (McDonogh, 1996) runs the girls youth soccer program for the Baltimore Bays.

Many keep fit. Russell, 57, played competitive baseball until two years ago. Neale, 41, had a baby in March but will return to her women's soccer team in the fall. Dundalk's Jeff Bradford (1970) was bedridden after back surgery but shoots baskets as part of his daily regimen. Laurie Governor Curtis (Howard, 1984) is on the mend, having torn an Achilles' tendon playing in a basketball fundraiser.

This millennium's winners may not have hit their prime. Jeremy Navarre (Joppatowne, 2004) started for the Maryland football team as a freshman. Mount Hebron's Kristen Waagbo, Athlete of the Year in 2002 and 2003, helped Duke's lacrosse team reach the NCAA semifinals. Shane Stroup (River Hill, 2002) is packing his bags for California, where the NCAA track championships begin Wednesday. He runs for the University of Florida.

All told, in 40 years The Sun has honored approximately 2,200 Athletes of the Week. Most of them made it to the ceremony in early June, too, despite the allure of Senior Week in Ocean City.

"I drove from the [Athlete of the Year] luncheon straight to the Bay Bridge," said Pat Welsh (Loyola, 1984). "The things we remember."


By the numbers

2,200 // Approximate number of Athletes of the Week

69 // Athletes of the Year

42 // Male winners

35 // Football players

27 // Female winners

15 // Schools with multiple winners

8 // Winners from Gilman

3 // Winners from Broadneck and Towson

3 // Multiple winners (Mandy White Pagon, Damien Davis, Kristen Waagbo)

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com paul.mcmullen@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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