By Marty Farmer
Oak Park residents Emery Lehman and Alec Cabacungan stole the show at the fourth annual Night of Champions on June 20 at Dominican University.
Night of Champions, sponsored by Wednesday Journal of Oak Park-River Forest, honors the achievements of elite high school teams, athletes and coaches from Oak Park and River Forest, Fenwick, Riverside-Brookfield, Lyons Township, Nazareth Academy and Proviso East high schools.
The featured speaker of the evening, Lehman, a two-time Olympic speed skater and OPRF alumnus, talked about overcoming adversity to realize his dreams.
"Emery is a great motivational speaker," said Fiona Giradot, who won Female Athlete of the Year along with OPRF softball teammate Maeve Nelson. "I enjoyed listening to his experience and how he dealt with adversity. He was a great example for all the athletes at Night of Champions."
Lehman, who also enjoys playing hockey and lacrosse, signed autographs, took photos and greeted guests during the reception.
"It was a great event and I was glad to be a part of it," he said.
Cabacungan, who has osteogenesis imperfecta or "brittle bones disease," earned the honor of Most Inspirational. Although Cabacungan could not attend the awards party, he gave a heartfelt acceptance speech via video from the NHL awards in Dallas.
The OPRF student and spokesman for Shriners Hospital is an aspiring sports broadcaster. He travels around the country appearing at various professional sports games, events and awards parties, while also spending time with and interviewing sports celebrities like Brett Favre, Shaquille O'Neal and Charles Barkley.
His appearance on Inside the NBA on TNT was shown at Night of Champions. The audience loved the 5-minute clip that showed him trading jokes and NBA knowledge with hosts Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, O'Neal and Barkley.
When Barkley heard Cabacungan is from Chicago, the former NBA great asked him, "You know the Bulls suck, right?" Cabacungan replied with a sheepish grin and said, "Yes." That exchange elicited laughter from the approximately 400 Night of Champions guests.
Along with Lehman and Cabacungan, several honorees were called to the stage to accept their awards from co-hosts Marty Farmer and Doris Davenport.
Winners included: Nelson and Girardot (co-Female Athlete of the Year), OPRF wrestler Jake Rundell (Male Athlete of the Year), Fenwick wrestler Jacob Kaminski (Male Athlete of the Year), Fenwick boys lacrosse coach Jerry Considine (Coach of the Year), Fenwick water polo (Hall of Fame inductee), OPRF wrestling (Male Team of the Year), Fenwick girls hockey (Female Team of the Year), and Melvin Tate (Volunteer of the Year).
"I thought the ceremony was a nice way to recognize high school athletes," Girardot said. "Wednesday Journal does a great job covering high school sports. The athletes really appreciate it. It was a great evening for all involved."
Riverside-Brookfield Landmark winners included: Nazareth basketball player Annie Stritzel (Female Athlete of the Year), LTHS cross country/track runner Danny Kilrea (Male Athlete of the Year), Nazareth girls basketball (Female Team of the Year), Nazareth baseball (Male Team of the Year) and RBHS girls water polo coach Todd Fridrych (Coach of the Year).
"I love that high school sports were covered and honored," Nazareth head baseball coach Lee Milano said. "We were extremely honored that we won an award. Unfortunately, there is very little coverage of high school sports anymore."
Forest Park Review winners included: Proviso East track star Moses Biosah (Male Athlete of the Year), Proviso East tennis player Janet Buenrostro (Female Athlete of the Year), Proviso East girls basketball (Female Team of the Year) and Proviso East boys basketball (Male Team of the Year).
"I absolutely loved it," Biosah said about Night of Champions. "It was a great experience. I'm honored they thought about me. I also loved the part about coaches getting recognition."
Dominican University Athletic Director Ken Trendel and state Senator Don Harmon (39th District) spoke at the beginning and end of the awards party, respectively.
"I thought it was a wonderful evening," said Tate, who is a contributing reporter for the Wednesday Journal. "I thought Emery and Alec stole the show with their inspirational speeches.
"Marty and I do what we do in terms of coverage. We'll certainly continue to do what we can because these young men and women deserve the credit and accolades."
Prior to the show, guests enjoyed an activity-filled reception. A raffle was held featuring Chicago pro sports items, such as a signed NBA basketball by all the Chicago Bulls players, an NFL football from the Chicago Bears, and an autographed baseball and hockey puck from the Chicago White Sox and Chicago Blackhawks, respectively. The Chicago Sky, Chicago Wolves and White Sox also provided free tickets as part of the raffle.
Large poster boards with action photos and a full list of all the Wednesday Journal and Landmark All-Stars were displayed in the Lund Auditorium reception area as well. Created by Wednesday Journal graphic designer Jacquinete Baldwin and produced by Oak Park-based Minuteman Press, the popular poster boards were sold at a smaller size for guests.
"The beautifully creative and inspiring poster montages acted as the 'cherry on the sundae,'" said Anne Marie Leader, whose son Grant is an LTHS baseball player/Landmark All-Star. "We bought several posters last night and gave one to our 85-year-old grandpa who hasn't missed a ball game.
"We are thankful for all of the time, energy and expense that went into Night of Champions. From the two-minute video montage of the most athletically inspiring scenes from Hollywood to the Olympic speed skater's keynote address, the event definitely succeeded in making the athletes feel special."
Dominican University, Dr. Romano and the Romano Orthopaedic Center, and Senator Harmon set up display tables, while the OPRF Jazz Trio provided musical entertainment.
Discounted tickets were sold at the box office as well as tickets to the fourth Wednesday Journal Conversations evening, this time featuring Sacramento Kings guard, NBA champion and Oak Park native Iman Shumpert. The event will be held on July 11 from 7 to 9 p.m. at Lund Auditorium on the Dominican University campus.
Tickets are available now at bit.ly/WJShumpertFB or bit.ly/DUShumpert.
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