By: J. Daniel Pearson
For Positively Osceola
The Orange Belt Conference (OBC) honored the brightest and the best in Osceola County high school sports on Wednesday night at its annual awards banquet at Heritage Park in Kissimmee.
Harmony, as well as Osceola wrestlers Cooper Haase and Kealoni Vega, were the big winners on the evening. The Longhorns captured the All-Sports Championship for the 2022-23 school year, as well as the overall Academic Championship; while Haase and Vega were named the OBC Male and Female Athletes of the Year.
The OBC consists of the eight public schools in Osceola County, including Celebration, Gateway, Harmony, Liberty, Osceola, Poinciana, St. Cloud and Tohopekaliga. To be included in the All-Sports standings, each sport must be contested by at least four of the eight county schools. Each sport receives equal weight. Points are awarded on an 8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 basis. Points are earned on the results of either an OBC Tournament or from round-robin results for team sports; and one-day OBC Tournaments for individual sports. Because of the nature of football, where county teams play in assigned districts and different classes – the sport is not included in the OBC All-Sports results
The Longhorns found themselves in a tight race with Celebration through the conclusion of the fall and winter sports. But Harmony captured team championships in four spring sports, including baseball, boys track, girls track, and flag football for a championship total of 152 to easily outdistance second place St. Cloud (128) and third place Celebration (127). Tohopekaliga was fourth (104).
It was Harmony’s third consecutive team title and 11th in the school’s 19-year history.
“We have a tremendous coaching staff here that works extremely hard in building overall programs, and not just single year success. When we graduate a great senior class, we always seem to have underclassmen ready to step in, compete and fill the void,” Harmony Athletics Director Dan Kerr. “We may not win the most team championships every year, but we are rarely at the bottom of the standings in any sport. It’s that consistency that has been the most important part to our overall success. We put a lot of emphasis on the importance trying to win the All-Sports Award every year.”
Harmony later pulled the double by winning the OBC Team Academic Championship for a county record ninth time in 14 years of the program. All Longhorn athletes had a cumulative GPA of 3.412 – edging out St. Cloud (3.357) and Celebration (3.3354) for the title. The Bulldogs and Celebration tied for the team championship last year. In addition to the overall academic title, St. Cloud’s girls’ golf (cumulative GPA of 3.761) and Harmony’s boys’ volleyball (cumulative GPA of 3.726) were named the top individual teams for academic achievement.
Individually, Gateway’s Felipe Abreau was named Male Academic Athlete of the Year and Liberty’s Jennifer Baez earned Female Academic Athlete of the Year. Baez has a perfect 4.0 GPA and a weighted 4.63 GPA and will attend UCF; while Abeau posted a 4.0 GPA and a 4.75 weighted GPA and will attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Both participated in three sports.
Haase, who concentrated strictly on wrestling, edged out multi-sport stars like Harmony’s Alex Tuyo for the OBC Male Athlete of the Year. In his sport, Haase dominated his weight class in going 49-1 and winning the 152-lb. weight class at the FHSAA Class 3A championships. He went undefeated inside the state, captured OBC, District and Regional titles; as well as a prestigious Kowboys Knockout Christmas Classic title. His only loss of the season came against the nation’s third ranked wrestler in the country in a Pennsylvania holiday tournament.
Overall, Haase joined Osceola legend Fox Baldwin, as the only wrestler in school and county history to win four individual state championships. He has accepted a scholarship to the United States Military Academy in West Point.
Vega edged out Harmony multi-sport star Drea Thompson and others as the OBC Female Athlete of the Year. Vega (39-1) breezed through the field with four straight pins to become the county’s first official state champion with a win in the 100-pound class. Vega, considered one best in the country, most likely would have won a state championship last year but missed the season with an ACL injury.
“She is an incredible athlete and an incredible competitor,” Osceola coach Rick Tribit said. “When she got hurt last year, she was devastated that she did not get to compete in the first FHSAA Girls Tournament. She came back on a mission this year.”
At the ceremony, County Athletics Director Ryan Adams recognized the county’s other state champions –Harmony wrestler Nelson Toro, Osceola wrestler Heap and St. Cloud weightlifters Mike Ziss and Abby Davis. It was Heap’s second consecutive state title; while Ziss ended up with two state championships as he won both the traditional (bench and clean-and-jerk) and Olympic (snatch and clean-and-jerk) competitions.
Banquet highlights included the naming of the “Mike Fields Distinguished Leadership Award” and the “Dean Cherry Memorial Coach of the Year” awards. Named after the former St. Cloud and Harmony baseball coaching legend Mike Fields, Tohopekaliga baseball coach Nikko Martell was selected. The award recognizes athletic achievement, sportsmanship and community service.
“Coach Martell’s mission is to help our athletes on and off the field. He works hard to hold his athletes accountable for both their grades and their character in a world that it would be easy to just work for wins,” Tohopekaliga Athletics Director Foster said. “Nikko and his team continually stepped up to help out other teams by working events or covering parking and interacting with the families. For the past couple of years he has run for last couple years the XT Preseason Classic, an honorary baseball tournament to remember his friend Xavier Torres; he also works closely with the Latinos in Action, helping create a Roberto Clemente Community Service Award for high school athletes who do volunteer work inside the community.”
Harmony basketball coach Dustin “Duke” Leonardo earns the Dean Cherry Memorial Coach of the Year. Leonardo led Harmony to its first district basketball championship in school history. The 22-6 season set a school record for single season wins and capped a remarkable turnaround in Harmony’s basketball fortunes. In the four years prior to Leonardo’s arrival, the Longhorns had four consecutive losing seasons and were 32-61 overall. After a 6-12 initial season, Leonardo has put together back-to-back records of 16-10 and 22-6 and he is 44-28 overall.
The Dean Cherry Coach of the Year was determined by a vote of athletics directors from the list of OBC Coach of the Years selected at each school. Those honorees were also recognized, including David Rains (Celebration-girls CC), Carrie Palmi (Osceola-girls VB), Leonardo (Harmony-Boys BB), Justin Moreno (Gateway-Girls BB), Jim Endicott (St. Cloud – Boys and Girls Golf), Matt Arnold (Liberty – Boys cross county and girls weightlifting), Rob Weilert (Tohopekaliga – Lacrosse and weightlifting) and Jordan Creel (Boys and Girls weightlifting).
Two new awards were added to the program. Retiring Osceola County School Superintendent Debra Pace was honored with the “OBC Lifetime Achievement Award.” Dr. Pace spent 35 years in the Osceola School System, including the past seven as Superintendent. “Dr. Pace’s contributions to Osceola County, the school system, and athletics cannot be underestimated,” Adams said when making the announcement. Finally, the Advent Health Community Service Award was created. Celebration edged St. Cloud as the first recipient of the award as Adams noted that Storm athletes and coaches donated close to 3500 hours towards community projects this year. In addition, Poinciana’s Tiffany King was honored as the OBC Athletic Director of the Year.
2022-23 OBC Champions
Boys Cross Country Tohopekaliga
Girls Cross Country Celebration
Boys Golf St. Cloud
Girls Golf St. Cloud
Boys Swimming and Diving Harmony
Girls Swimming and Diving Harmony
Girls Volleyball Osceola
Boys Basketball Osceola
Girls Basketball St. Cloud
Boys Soccer Celebration
Girls Soccer Celebration
Girls Weightlifting St. Cloud
Flag Football Harmony
Boys Track and Field Harmony
Girls Track and Field Harmony
Boys Tennis Celebration
Girls Tennis Celebration
Boys Volleyball Celebration
Boys Weightlifting St. Cloud
Competitive Cheer Celebration