By: J. Daniel Pearson

In what amounted to an outstanding year for individual and team achievement, the Orange Belt Conference (OBC) saluted the ‘Best of the Best’ on Wednesday night at its annual honors dinner. The program recognized the athletes, coaches and administrators from the eight public high schools (Celebration, Harmony, Osceola, St. Cloud, Gateway, Tohopekaliga, Liberty and Poinciana) that make up the OBC.

“After having to cancel the ceremony for the last two years because of Covid, it’s good to get back together in person to honor our athletes, teams and coaches,” County Athletics Director Ryan Adams said. “Osceola County has an outstanding year in high school sports with seven individual state champions, numerous district and regional crowns, and a state championship won by St. Cloud United basketball. To date we have also had 77 senior athletes sign letters-of-intent to play at the next level. All of this was accomplished while our athletes were maintaining the highest standards in academic achievement.”

For a second consecutive year, the Harmony Longhorns used a strong spring season to claim the OBC All-Sports Trophy as the top overall athletic program. Trailing Celebration heading into the spring sports, the Longhorns rallied to take the team trophy for the 10th time with 162 points to edge the Storm (152.)

The Academic GPA Championship came down to the wire, as Celebration and St. Cloud shared the award by finishing the school year with identical overall GPA’s of 3.405 among their student-athletes. It was the fourth time overall and the second consecutive year in the award’s 13 year history that the Bulldogs were named the top academic sports program; while Celebration won the award for the first time. Harmony, who has won the trophy a record eight times, finished in third – just a few hundredths of a point behind the other two schools.

In addition, Celebration Girls Golf (3.882) and Osceola Boys Cross Country (3.780) were recognized for having the highest GPAs of all individual teams in the county; while Harmony’s Riley Decoster and Celebration’s Zach Zelmanski were named the Girls and Boys Academic Student Athlete of the Year.

Overall, it should be noted that the overall cumulative GPA of all the athletes of all eight OBC schools averaged out to a 3.00 or better. “Athletics are so important to our schools,” Dr. Debra Pace, Superintendent of Osceola County Schools said in awarding the trophy jointly to Celebration and St. Cloud. “Participation in high school athletics keeps students engaged and committed. I am extremely proud of academic and athletic accomplishments of all our teams and athletes.”

Celebration state champion swimmer Felipe Costa and Gateway multi-sport star Paige Alise were honored as the county’s Male and Female Athlete of the Year. Costa became just the third county athlete to win an individual state championship in the sport, breaking a drought of more than 25 years since Osceola’s PJ Frueler won the 500-free at the 1995 state meet and Bryan Gillooly won four consecutive diving championships at Gateway from 1990-93. Costa accomplished it by blowing away the field to win the 100-back by more than 7/10th of a second in 49.04. It not only earned him a state championship but also All-America honors based on time. With two more medals in relay events, Costa had a hand in all team points scored by Osceola in the state meet.

Alise was tremendous performer in three different sports. She captained Gateway’s volleyball team, helping the team reach the Regional Semifinals while recording a team-leading 311 kills. As a basketball player, she was a key member of the Panthers’ 22-8 team that advanced all the way to the regional finals and she would qualify for the state championship in the javelin with a second place regional finish and also won districts in the shot and javelin and was second in the discus.

Each school named a Coach of the Year at their respective institutions. Laura Jones (girls’ lacrosse-Celebration), Tane Crossley (track-Gateway), Eric Pinellas (football/track-Osceola), Cory Aun (weightlifting-St. Cloud), Jennifer Farrell (girls basketball-Tohopekaliga), Mike Koudelka (soccer/girls tennis-Poinciana), Zach Tayes (baseball-Liberty) and Nick Lippert (weightlifting-Harmony) were honored as their school’s Coach of the Year.

From that list, Jones was selected recipient of the M. Dean Cherry Memorial Coach of the Year. The winner of five straight district championships, Jones is also credited with assisting with the creation of the sport at Tohopekaliga and helping St. Cloud adopt the sport for the 2022-23 school year. In an emotional acceptance speech, Jones said she became involved in athletics “to stay in shape but later realized the difference she could make in coaching.”

Aun accepted the Mike Fields Distinguished Leadership Award from the family of the former St. Cloud/Harmony baseball coaching legend. “For decades, Mike Fields taught baseball, sportsmanship and the importance of community service and he did with a great deal of class and grace,” Adams said. “There is no one more deserving of this award than Cory Aun, who absolutely exhibits those same characteristics and traits Coach Fields did for decades.”

Adams pointed out the fact that Aun once stopped the team van on the way to a meet so his team could help a young mother move furniture and appliances into an apartment and how he unselfishly assists and mentors other coaches and athletes in his sport – even those who were direct competitors. “Until a couple of years ago, coaches could vote for themselves for these awards, Cory would never vote for himself,” Adams added. “That in itself tells you what type of person he is. It’s always about the sport and the athletes and never about recognition for himself.”

The OBC Lifetime Achievement Award was given posthumously to former Osceola softball coaching legend George Coffey, who passed away last year. Coffey won numbers OBC, district and regional crowns during his career, but was equally noted for his a willingness and effort to always promote high school softball and help athletes.

Adams noted one time he was asked to speak for a few minutes at a coaching clinic for elementary and middle school coaches in order to help them understand the sport. “George shows up with three inch thick binders full of coaching tips, drills and information for each coach, then takes them on the field to explain everything. By the end of the day, every one of those coaches felt like George was their best friend,” Adams said. “If it is was promoting and growing the game, Coach Coffey would do it.”