By Philip Cmor
It was a celebration of sports excellence, but Allison Schmitt turned the sixth annual Altoona Mirror Athlete of the Year Banquet sponsored by 611 MRI into a celebration of life.
Whenever one of her friends went to the stage of The Casino at Lakemont on Monday night, Schmitt let out a high-pitched yelp that everyone in the room couldn't help but notice.
"The Schmitts are known for having pretty big mouths,'' she said. "If you didn't hear me earlier, I apologize. I just figured these are sports fans. You cheer for people.''
There were plenty of cheers, if not as noticeable as Schmitt's. Schmitt, the Altoona Area High School tennis player who beat ovarian cancer, was the winner of the Erin Johnson Award for courageousness in the face of adversity. The Athletes of the Year were Altoona track star Wade Endress and Penn Cambria volleyball/javelin standout Jess Delic.
Stefanie McCoy of Chestnut Ridge and Blake Bussard of Central Cambria received the Ron Rickens Sportsmanship Awards, while Tyrone's Jimmy Ferguson won the Frank Kiraly Memorial Award that goes to the area's top golfer for the third year in a row.
More than 60 winners of the 611 MRI Altoona Mirror Athlete of the Week were presented plaques, and national championship-winning Penn State women's volleyball coach Russ Rose delivered the keynote speech.
It was a festive atmosphere. Where else could one observe Tyrone's Olivia Stever talking to Williamsburg's Olivia Everhart only to be tapped on the shoulder and turn around into a big hug from Altoona's Lysa Mealing while Tyrone football coach John Franco congratulated Bussard on his award just a few feet away?
Still, the only spontaneous standing ovation went up for Schmitt. Schmitt was diagnosed with state 3 ovarian cancer at the age of 15, something almost unheard of. Despite surgery and chemotherapy that effectively ended a promising career as a distance runner, Schmitt worked hard and came back to earn a starting spot on the District 6 Class AAA champion Lady Lion tennis team her sophomore year.
She now works as a youth ambassador for the American Cancer Association.
"I want to thank my family, my parents, because, obviously, I wouldn't have gotten through it without them ... my friends,'' Schmitt said.
Schmitt was presented the award by former Mirror sports editor Jim Lane because, while Schmitt was livening the audience, Johnson, the former Claysburg-Kimmel basketball player who scored 1,000 career points after being born without a left hand or forearm, was giving birth to her first child.
Battles with cancer were a common theme through the evening. Former Altoona High and Juniata College volleyball star Erin Dodson, who recently lost a long battle with brain cancer, was remembered more than once, along with the late John Conlon.
"Erin Dodson was a breath of fresh air,'' Rose said. "Everyday, that kid brought a smile.''
McCoy, meanwhile, earned her award primarily for her efforts to help her friend, Heather Miller, who was suffering and eventually died from the disease. Since Miller's passing, McCoy has continued to work in her memory and has raised more than $13,000.
"I want to thank God for this, and Heather and the Miller family,'' McCoy said upon receiving her award.
Zach Rickens, a record-setting swimmer at East Pennsboro High School, presented the sportsmanship awards named for his late grandfather, the longtime area fixture as a player, coach and, most notably, an official. He introduced Bussard, who earned 14 letters at Central Cambria and was the National Football Foundation Community Service Award winner for the Central PA chapter.
"This came as a big surprise to me,'' said Bussard, who hurried to put on his jacket as he came to the stage. "I'd like to thank this foundation and my parents, of course, because they've been my biggest supporters.''
Delic also was caught off-guard. The Akron University-bound senior was a first-team Mirror all-star in volleyball after helping lead the Lady Panthers to the District 6 Class AA championship and will go into this weekend's PIAA Track and Field Championships as the top seed in the javelin. In addition, she starred in softball and basketball earlier in her high school career.
"This comes as a very big surprise,'' Delic said. "I'd like to thank my parents, T.J. and Lynn, for everything they've done for me and supporting me, and God, who has blessed me.''
Endress will continue to run at Penn State and will be looking to add to his six state medals in track at the PIAA meet. He was the runner-up in the PIAA Class AAA cross country meet last fall.
"I'd like to thank my parents and grandparents for supporting me all my life, the great coaching staff that we have at Altoona - we have some of the best coaches in the state,'' Endress said, "our schoolboard and our athletic department for allowing me to do the things that I've done.''
Ferguson was four-time league MVP, three-time PIAA qualifier and two-time winner of both the District 6 and Wheeling Invitational tournaments. He's headed to St. Francis.
The Kiraly Award was presented by Kiraly's grandson, Jonathan Madey.
"I just want to say thank you to the Madey and the Kiraly family and my family, of course,'' Ferguson said.
Hollidaysburg girls soccer player Mackenzie Walter and swimmer Sarah Kaneshiki received athlete of the week plaques for the fourth year in a row.