Top female athlete of the year: Val Varanese.
It’s not common to pick a freshman for this, generally going to a player more experienced, but this girl is on fire. Experience doesn’t always win out against pure talent and hard work, which is how Varanese has been able to push into the spotlight. Her outdoor season culminating into her success during the outdoor MWC Championships where she placed second in the 100 meter dash with a new school record breaking time of :12.46. She also finished fifth in the 200 meter dash with another school record time of :25.98. Her already huge success as a freshman and clear determination to improve from there is what makes her my top female pick.
Coach of the year: Paul Lawrence.
Generally when there is a roster comprised predominantly of freshmen on a team, that season is going to be more of a building year than anything else. Instead, Lawrence used this to his advantage. Confident in his excellent recruiting abilities, Lawrence saw an opportunity to take the Midwest Conference by storm and he did just that. Coming off of their previous season with a 3-14 record, the Prairie Fire took the conference by storm, falling to Carroll University in overtime during the conference tournament. Lawrence, managing to coach a historic season in which their ending record of 13-5-2, had almost done a 180 from the previous season. It takes skill to recruit such quality players for a program that does not have a lot to show for itself and to then make history with a predominantly freshmen team.
Game of the year: Ultimate qualifies for nationals.
Ultimate Frisbee is not generally a sport that is given a lot of attention at Knox, though it is generally fairly successful. This year’s team was stacked with a talented senior class as well as talented underclassmen. The team almost always makes it past sectionals to regionals, but the team has never made it past regionals to nationals: until this year. Breezing through sectionals, and with extra regional bids the Knox River Rats fought for the third spot advancing to nationals against Valparaiso. An even match, both fighting for a place in nationals, Knox was able to dig deeper and pull through with the win, making them the first ever Knox Ultimate Frisbee team to qualify for nationals, not to mention tying for fifth overall at nationals.
Moment of the year: Illir Emini’s catch.
It’s not everyday you find a Division III school on SportsCenter, let alone Knox. During football’s game against Lawrence University Illir Emini made a catch after kicking it to himself. It didn’t take long for SportsCenter’s Scott Van Pelt to find and air Emini’s catch rocketing it into stardom. For almost a week Emini’s catch could be found with headlines such as The Big Leads “Probably the greatest catch in Division III football”, or USA Today calling it “Mind-blowing”. Though Emini himself was proud of his catch, he was already looking to continue forward and improve. This was the most excited Knox has been about its athletics in a while, rightfully earning it moment of the year.
Prediction for next year: Baseball qualifies for MWC Tournament.
I made the same prediction last year, and though it proved to be a bust, the baseball team has been working towards a strong season for a few years now. With only senior Marty Salazar graduating, the team can continue to grow, but with a strong upperclassmen lineup such as Drake Sykes ‘17, Ryan Weitendorf ’17, Alex Bell ‘17, and Matt McCaffrey ‘17 to lead them. This is how baseball had their highly successful 2013 season: highly successful seniors. That mixed with the caliber of incoming players they seem to be recruiting, I would be surprised if they didn’t qualify.
Top female athlete of the year: Literally the whole women’s soccer team’s defense.
I’m starting this list off strong by totally defying the award structure. I was originally seeking just one player to give this award to, but who is the most deserving? Freshman goalkeeper Sierra Daniger, who gave up less than a goal per game? Fellow freshmen Sydney Fretwell and Jenny Crary, who both earned Second Team All-MWC honors for their defensive work? The midfielders who consistently kept the ball out of the backfield? Defense does not rest on a single individual, but rather requires whole-team focus, which the Prairie Fire brought. I’ll leave you with a statistic: in 2013, opponents scored an average of 3.26 goals per game against Knox. In 2014, that number dipped to 2.82 and in 2015 it was down to 0.85. If they keep that yearly trend up, they’ll give up -0.35 goals per game in 2016. Not bad.
Top male athlete of the year: Drake Sykes.
What do you even want me to say that hasn’t been said? I gave Sykes this award last year as well, and he vastly improved this season. He led DIII in OBP (.583), was second in the country in batting average (.487) and fourth in slugging (.846). He led the MWC in the above measures as well as triples, and was second in the MWC in total bases (99), third in runs scored, tied for third in home-runs (8) and tied for fourth in hits (57). It’s unspeakable how good he was.
Moment of the year: WBB beats Grinnell.
In a game against Grinnell toward the end of the season, the Prairie Fire Women’s Basketball team was able to achieve their 12th win on the season. While that may not sound particularly notable in and of itself, the win sealed the Prairie Fire’s first winning season since their 1996-97 campaign, in which they went 10-4 in conference and 14-10 overall. The win against Grinnell was especially meaningful given that Grinnell had a stellar season in conference, finishing at 12-6 and in third place. The win is more of a testament to the work the team has put in to improve on a year to year basis, and provides an optimistic perspective for the near future.