AMY BRECHON, BELVIDERE NORTH HIGH SCHOOL | SECTION 4 WINNER
As a two-sport student-athlete (volleyball, soccer), Amy managed to maintain her status as an Honor Roll and National Honors Society student while also participating in numerous schools clubs and organizations that included Choir, Choraliers, Acapella, N Club, Z Club and the student leadership group Ambassador. Despite her impressive accomplishments on and off the playing field at Belvidere North, it was her work outside of the school where she best displayed her winning spirit. Amy was afflicted with breast cancer at the age of 13 and has since reached out to others to share her story as a speaker at events for Relay For Life and the Girls Scouts of America among others.
Amy Brechon on being named a Spirit of Sport Section Winner:
“This is such an honor and I am thrilled to receive the NFHS Spirit of Sport Award. I have to admit though, I was one of the lucky ones. At first I was very private about my breast cancer experience, but when I decided to become more open about it, I started to see that I had an important story to tell. My message is that you are never too young and can never be diligent enough about self examination because early detection is the key. I would like to thank the NFHS, the IHSA, Karen Reynolds, Coach Kristin Frank and Coach Bria Holzinger for their support.”
Belvidere (North) head volleyball coach Bria Holzinger on Amy:
“Amy Brechon is an inspirational leader who has made an impact on the lives of her teammates, her community, her family, her friends and her coach.”
TORI CLARK, LAKE PARK HIGH SCHOOL | NATIONAL WINNER
Tori Clark was a a member of the Lake Park volleyball and basketball teams and also participated on the soccer team during a portion of her high school career. Her leadership skills and positive attitude led her teammates to vote her basketball team captain and she was also involved with a number of community events, including organizing and working a wheelchair basketball tournament.
However, those outstanding activities and accolades were just a precursor to one of the most selfless acts ever exhibited by a high school student-athlete. In October 2009, Tori saw a newspaper article regarding Christine Federico, a former star volleyball player and single mother of two in a neighboring community. Federico had recently been diagnosed with Myelodysplastic Syndrome, a form of pre-leukemia.
Her two daughters were volleyball players at Neuqua Valley High School, which competes in the same conference as Lake Park High School. Like many others reading the story, Tori initially felt bad for the Federico family, but she also felt compelled to do something more. Knowing that Lake Park would be hosting Neuqua Valley in volleyball in less than two weeks, she quickly began to recruit her teammates, coaches, parents and other fans to give back.
Tori had no connection with the Federico family. She didn’t know her counterpart on the volleyball court (Nikki Federico), and the two seniors didn’t have any mutual friends. Nonetheless, Tori orchestrated an evening that no one will soon forget.
Although Christine was unable to attend the October 15th match, the surprise Christine’s daughters and parents felt when they entered the gymnasium decorated floor to ceiling in orange (the ribbon color for leukemia awareness) was nothing short of overwhelming. Tori started the evening by taking the microphone at center court and explaining that the Lake Park volleyball team had dubbed the night “Teams Helping Teams.” The parents of Lake Park volleyball coach Kate Clifton owned a local t-shirt company and donated orange shirts for the event that that read “Federico Family We Support You,” that nearly everyone in the gym wore.
In the end, the team sold more than 600 t-shirts and raised in excess of $3,500, which Lake Park presented to the Federico family to help pay for uninsured medical costs. Tori was honored by the NFHS at a luncheon at the NFHS Summer Meeting in San Diego, California.
Tori Clark on the Spirit of Sport Award and Teams Helping Teams:
“To be honest, I was really surprised and honored to be nominated for the Spirit of Sport Award and even more so to have won. I never dreamed that the fundraiser would be as successful as it was or draw as much attention as it did. I am just happy that I was able to help the Federico family and hopefully raise awareness of Myelodysplastic syndrome. Thanks so much to my teammates, Coach (Kate) Clifton, her generous family and (Lake Park Athletic Director) Mr. (Pete) Schauer for allowing this all to happen. Thanks as well to the hundreds upon hundreds of Lancer fans who came out to support the fundraiser. You all looked fantastic in neon orange!”
KEVIN CRAFTON, RED BUD HIGH SCHOOL | IHSA NOMINEE
Kevin Crafton was a standout two-sport athlete at Red Bud as a junior in 2010-11, playing on the Musketeer football team in the fall and the baseball team in the spring. He had been a three-sport athlete until high school and plans to rejoin the school basketball team during his senior year after broken bones in his foot and surgery on a torn meniscus cost him his freshman and sophomore seasons on the hardwood, respectively.
Kevin lines up all over the field for the Red Bud football team, playing running back, wide receiver, linebacker and defensive back. He also earned All-Cahokia Conference honors as a kicker last fall, while finishing third on the team in scoring and tackles, catching five passes for 187 yards and snagging a trio of interceptions. On the baseball diamond, Kevin pitches, plays first base or centerfield and routinely hits in the number three or four slot in the Musketeer batting order.
Kevin has excelled at all of these endeavors despite losing his right hand in a meat grinding accident nearly seven years ago when he was nine years old. After losing his dominant hand in the accident, Kevin was forced to not only relearn how to play sports, but also the small day-to-day things that came with little thought or effort like brushing his teeth, writing his name, tying his shoes and playing video games. His resiliency, determination and fearlessness in the face of adversity made him an ideal candidate for the NFHS Spirit of Sport Award.
Kevin Crafton on overcoming his accident:
“When I lost my hand, it required me to work twice as hard on a lot of things, as well as to spend a lot of time thinking through how to do things that came easily to me when I had two hands. I have a lot of positive influences in my life who have helped me overcome my accident, starting with my parents and my family. All of my coaches, especially the football staff at Red Bud, have also been incredibly important as well. They always push me and don't treat me differently from any of the other kids. They didn't change or lower the expectations for me and that motivated me to set higher goals."
HERIBERTO "EDDIE" AVILA, BELVIDERE NORTH HIGH SCHOOL | IHSA NOMINEE
Eddie Avila’s harrowing story began in January 2011 during his senior year at Belvidere North when he suffered a horrific knee injury during a wrestling match that required his left leg to be amputated above the thigh. The fact that he was a talented tennis player who had decided to try wrestling on a whim, simply for the experience, during his final year of high school would seem to make this story even more tragic.
But as Eddie’s injury became national news, the story quickly shifted from a tragedy to a feel-good story, as Eddie’s positive attitude in the face adversity became an inspiration to those around him. A talented musician who plays five instruments, Eddie touched many lives during his recovery and reached his goal of walking across the stage for graduation last May.
“There are so many people who inspire me,” said Avila. “My classmate Chloe Brunke (who suffered head injuries in a car accident) was a huge motivation to me as I made it through my recovery. Looking at the things she accomplished and watching her improve made me push harder to accomplish my goals. So to be nominated for this award and be seen as an inspiration to others makes me feel really honored.”
Rockford Register Star Columnist Matt Trowbridge on Eddie:
"Heriberto Avila has – no make that IS – the most inspiring story I’ve ever heard of. He’s too good to be true, only he is true. He is a ray of sunshine who makes everyone who knows him feel good even in his own darkest hours.”
TODD HOLLIS, ELMWOOD HIGH SCHOOL | SECTION 4 WINNER
Todd Hollis, a teacher at Elmwood High School and the head football coach of the Elmwood-Brimfield football coop has made significant impact on his team and community well beyond wins and losses. Hollis has strived to enrich the lives of his players with the Trojans’ Men of Virtue program, which promotes positive values. However, it’s what Hollis has done outside of football that has really distinguished him.After Hollis’ wife, Anne, gave birth to two healthy boys, the family’s first daughter, Meg, was born in 2007 with Down syndrome. Three years later, the Hollises adopted three-year-old Alina (who also has Down syndrome) from an orphanage in the Ukraine.As both daughters received therapy and services from Easter Seals of Peoria, the family took on an affinity for the organization and Hollis began to look for ways to give back. His initial efforts came in the 2007 season with some simple grassroots fundraising programs that generated $1,300. The following season, Hollis and his players started “Blackout for Easter Seals,” in which the team would sell black t-shirts featuring the Easter Seals logo for a select home game each season. The concept continued to spread and soon more than 30 high schools were hosting games. During the first five years of the program, more than 100 “Blackout for Easter Seals” games have been played, raising a grand total of $194,107.87 for Easter Seals.
Easter Seals Peoria President & CEO Steve Thompson on Todd:
"Through the love for his children - and every child with disabilities - Todd Hollis has dedicated his life to making this world a better place for everyone."
SACRED HEART-GRIFFIN HIGH SCHOOL | SECTION 4 WINNER
Less than 24 hours after Washington High School won its first IHSA Football Playoff Quarterfinal contest since 1985, the community of 15,000 (11 miles east of Peoria) was devastated by an EF-4 tornado that leveled over 1,200 homes. As the town and team tried to pick up the pieces, while also preparing for their semifinal football game that loomed six days later, it was their opponent Sacred Heart-Griffin High School who went above and beyond to help. SHG provided water, food, transportation and raised over $75,000 for the community. Click this link for more on SHG's efforts to help Washington and WCHS.
Washington High School Football Coach Darrell Crouch on SHG:
"Coach Leonard went out of his way during an important game week to do all in his power to comfort my staff and team, far beyond what you would expect in our competitive world we live in. It would have been very easy to simply make a courtesy call and then go ahead with his preparation for the week. Ken did all in his power to help us out spiritually, emotionally and financially. I cannot say enough about him and his kind heart. He taught his players and his school some great life lessons during that week”
COACH JON NELSON & AUSTIN SPENCER TRI-VALLEY HIGH SCHOOL | IHSA NOMINEE
After a strong sophomore season playing varsity basketball for Tri-Valley High School head coach Jon Nelson, Austin Spencer discovered he was one of approximately 50 people in the world living with a rare immune deficiency disease just weeks before the start of his junior year. Spencer spent his entire junior year in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he underwent a bone marrow transplant and recovery. Despite the distance, Coach Nelson’s support and friendship played a key role in Austin’s recovery. Austin completed a miraculous recovery when he returned to school at Tri-Valley in November, one year after his transplant. His return also coincided with the first game of his senior season of basketball, where he started that night and scored a game-high 15 points in a victory. Click here for more on Austin and Jon's story.
Austin on Coach Jon Nelson:
“We grew really close. Every time I got lab results back, he was second to know after my parents. We are going to be friends for a long time.”
Coach Jon Nelson on Spencer:
““I wanted him to know it was ok to be afraid of what he was facing. It makes you realize that life is lot bigger than the game.”
WOLFGANG KEMP, WOODSTOCK NORTH HIGH SCHOOL | SECTION 4 WINNER
Wolfgang Kemp has overcome adversity that few individuals can truly understand, but his passion for high school football and wrestling proved to be a guiding motivation in helping him overcome. Wolfgang and his father lost their home during his sophomore year of high school, and unsurprisingly, the homeless teen’s grades suffered to the point that he would become academically ineligible for both football and wrestling. Aided by temporary housing from the county, and the support of coaches and teammates, Wolfgang worked himself back to eligibility. His determination and resiliency in the face of significant challenges define the spirit of this award. Click here for more on Wolfgang's story.
Coach Jeff Schroeder on Wolfgang:
“If he applies the same determination to the rest of his life that he has to his high school sports career, he is going to have a successful life.”
JOEY MALINOWSKI, BLOOMINGTON CENTRAL CATHOLIC | IHSA NOMINEE
In the summer entering his junior football season, Bloomington Central Catholic’s Joey Malinwoski found himself wanting to give back through sports, but wasn’t quite sure how. While attending a football camp in Wisconsin that July, he was touched by the words of University of Nebraska punter Sam Foltz. That evening, Foltz was killed in a car accident on his way home from the camp. Upon hearing the news the next day, Malinwoski made the decision on-the-spot to work with Kick-It For Kids With Cancer to help raise money for pediatric cancer research. The only problem was that Malinowski wasn’t a kicker, but rather a longsnapper. Also an offensive and defensive linemen for the Saints, he received special permission from Kick-It to raise money for each tackle he made during the 2016 season. He used his jersey number, 70, as the inspiration to try and raise $7,000, which he easily surpassed en route to nearly $8,000 raised. Along the way, a family in Tinley Park whose son was battling Leukemia heard what Joey was doing and reached out to him. He connected with the young man, Joe Moylan, and began to call him before every game to encourage him to keep fighting, while he and his fellow linemen began to wear bracelets supporting him. Click here for more on Joey's story.
Central Catholic teammate Max Moews on Joey:
"Dedicated is the first word that comes to mind with Joey. He is a genuine guy. He is true to his values and what he knows. He is a great teammate, a great leader and a great guy."
DAMARI HENDRIX, FOREMAN HIGH SCHOOL (CHICAGO) | IHSA NOMINEE
Damari Hendrix was the victim of random violence when he was shot in the head following a pickup basketball game on Labor Day weekend in a Chicago park. Given a one percent chance of surviving surgery, Damari would make it through three total life-saving surgeries and a four-day medically induced coma. It would take him two months to relearn how to talk, while therapy sessions three times per day would help him slowly regain a full range of motion in his extremities. He was home-schooled his entire sophomore year as he recovered, but amazingly, when his junior year rolled around he was back in school and playing basketball with his teammates in open gyms. The likes of ESPN were in attendance when Damari played in the Hornets season-opener in November, where he came off the bench and drained his first jumper. While he continues to work back to full strength, he’d post a double-double in a game just days after the opener, putting an exclamation point on his amazing comeback story.
Damari Hendrix on being given a second chance:
“When I woke up (in the hospital), I didn’t believe any of it. It felt fake. I couldn’t believe, I mean me, out of all the people in the world for this to happen to. Every day I thank God that I’m alive I got a second chance. That’s where my focus is. Anything is possible with hard work and dedication.”
RILEY MAHER, O'FALLON HIGH SCHOOL | IHSA NOMINEE
Riley Maher showed incredible determination in her battle with cancer, going from diagnosis to returning to play lacrosse for the Panthers in a six-month span. After showing no prior symptoms, Riley went to the doctor in October experiencing chest pain she believed to be caused by a bruise in a lacrosse game. Over the course of the next 48 hours, she would be diagnosed with B-Cell Lymphoma and begin undergoing aggressive chemotherapy treatment. Each of her 21-day chemo treatment cycles required a five-day hospital stay followed by 16 days of recovery at home. Her passion for lacrosse and her teammates motivated her in recovery, and amazingly, she was cleared to return to practice on March 21 and played in her first game on April 9. Riley helped guide her team to an IHSA Sectional title a month later. Riley is straight A student who volunteers in her community, and recently accepted a post as the Teen Life Council Member at St. Louis Children’s Hospital where she was treated.
Riley on that amazing six months of her life:
“There were times where I wondered if I was going to get to play (lacrosse) again. I was really missing my team. Open gyms, tryouts, practices. I was there for as much of it as I could be. As I began feeling better and knew the treatment was working, I got brighter, and was excited to start working my way back. On and off the field, I got so much support from so many people I didn’t even know.”
Coach Garrison on Riley:
“Riley is such an inspiration to our athletes. She showed us that there are things in life we cannot control, but that we can control how we react to them. She faced an obstacle head on and refused to be defeated.”
MARLEE SMITH, ANNA-JONESBORO HIGH SCHOOL | SECTION 4 WINNER
Marlee Smith started off her high school sports career at Anna-Jonesboro in promising fashion, making the varsity team as a freshman in both golf and basketball. However, before softball season could get into full swing, she received life-changing news when she was diagnosed with T-Cell Leukemia. Marlee went through grueling treatment, including over 30 days in the hospital, and managed to return to play both sports as a sophomore. Despite how inspiring her comeback was, her compassion for others was even more uplifting. Marlee organized a Christmas toy drive for the kids who would be in Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital for cancer treatment over the holidays, as well as speaking to others about her experience to inspire hope in others fighting cancer. The toy drive inspired the area, and several opposing basketball teams brought gifts when they came to play at Anna-Jonesboro. Click here for more on Marlee’s story.
Marlee on why she started the toy drive:
"Despite what I was dealing with, the young kids in treatment are going through much worse. Some couldn’t get out of bed or lost limbs. I saw kids there beginning treatment in early December and knew they wouldn’t be able to get back home by the holidays. I wanted them to feel as much of home as they could, and make sure they knew people cared."
ELIZABETH WEIDNER, TEUTOPOLIS HIGH SCHOOL | IHSA NOMINEE
Set against the backdrop of the pandemic, the 2020-21 school year was incredibly difficult for all high school student-athletes in Illinois. However, dealing with adversity was nothing new for Elizabeth. Her junior year at Teutopolis High School was also her fifth battling Neuroblastoma. This type of cancer has no cure and required that she travel to Cincinnati, Ohio for weekly treatments at some points during the school year. Despite that adversity, she remained committed to the Lady Shoes Pomerette dance team and competed with them whenever possible. She also maintained a straight A average academically, attending class in-person and then remotely when she was in Ohio. Elizabeth’s school and community involvement expands to FFA, National Honor Society, Choir, and Spanish Club to name a few. Her diagnosis drove her to take leadership positions in multiple cancer charities, including Crowns Fight Cancer and Voices of Hope. She also serves as an Ambassador for the American Cancer Society’s Gold Together and as a Lead Advocate for the Illinois chapter of the American Cancer Society.
Dance Coach Ashli Davidson on Elizabeth:
"Coaching Elizabeth is beholding a miracle each day. I have witnessed her leave the hospital after treatments and surgeries, only to show up to perform while still in pain. She is more than a true inspiration. Elizabeth is a beautiful and talented girl who constantly carries an extra weight most of us will never understand. Still, she dances light on her feet with nothing but love and happiness in her heart and a smile on her face. She truly loves to dance, and to know Elizabeth is to sincerely love her."
SARAH HINDE | WINNEBAGO HIGH SCHOOL | IHSA NOMINEE
Born 22 weeks into her mother's pregnancy, Sarah was given a 2% percent chance to live and was told she would never walk or talk if she did. She overcame those odds, and at six years old, set a goal of becoming a high school cheerleader. However, more hurdles remained, as a growth spurt when she was 11 years old, coupled with her cerebral palsy, created serious pain and complications in her legs. She relied on crutches and then a wheelchair, before finally undergoing surgery to reshape the bones in her legs. The doctors did not anticipate that she would be able to recover in time to cheer during her season football season, but through hard work and determination, she was cleared and achieved her goal of cheering on WHS during the 2021 football season. In addition, Sarah is also a member of the Student Council at WHS, serves as an advocate for Cerebral Palsy, and has competed in the Miss Royalty International pageant.
Sarah's Amazing Story Was Featured On WREX TV:
GABBY ORLET | ALTHOFF CATHOLIC HIGH SCHOOL | IHSA NOMINEE
As an eighth grader in April of 2021, Gabby was diagnosed with a giant cell tumor on her spine that essentially disintegrated her T-11 vertebra. Two surgeries were performed to remove the tumor and replace the T-11 vertebra, placing a cage in her back to support her vertebrae. During her ten days in the hospital, Gabby had to re-learn how to sit up, stand, and eventually walk again. The cancer also spread to her lungs, with the inoperable lung lesions requiring Gabby to undergo chemotherapy and immunotherapy for the rest of her life. Despite the toll her chemotherapy takes on her, Gabby’s love for sports has led her back to competition. After being unable to play volleyball, basketball, and soccer as a freshman, Gabby made her triumphant return to the volleyball court in the fall of 2022 as a sophomore, where she completed her amazing comeback by recording over 600 assists from her setter position. She achieved All-Conference and All-State honors despite undergoing chemotherapy and immunotherapy throughout the season.
Althoff Catholic Athletic Director Kathy Wuller on Gabby:
“I have never met anyone as tough and determined as Gabby.”
Gabby on losing and regaining sports:
“Volleyball has been a huge part of my life. It was a vital part of my being. However, I didn’t have that anymore, so freshman year was about finding myself outside of my comfort zone and being okay with that. Returning this year was overwhelming, but in the best way possible. I was beyond grateful for all the people that have supported me and given me the strength to keep fighting.”