SEBRING - It was a very emotional day for several local softball players as they fought back tears during an award ceremony on last Saturday during the 15th annual Special STARS Softball Classic.
Special STARS recognized two very special athletes who passed away last year by naming an award in their memory. The newest award for the tournament was the Jonny "J.T." Tanner Heart of Gold Award. It was created in memory of Tanner who lost his life during a hit and run accident last year shortly after the softball tourney. Tanner was not only a great softball player in the community who was dedicated to playing with Special STARS but he went beyond the field to establish a friendship with one very special athlete William Dickson. Tanner made Dickson his honorary coach even though he could not play ball any more. They were best friends.
The Heart of Gold Award is presented to an individual who goes beyond the ballfield to reach out to people with disabilities to make them feel loved, appreciated, and above all, respected.
Dickson made a special trip from Hardee County to be at the tournament to present the award, and brought Tanner's widow, Candice Day, and their children, Kelsey Day and Kalea Tanner. The family continued Johnny's legacy by playing on a softball team in the tournament this year. Together they presented the award to Lake Placid's Mary Basso.
Basso was the coach and sponsor of the Coffee News softball team. This was the same team that Dickson and Tanner played on together. She has been a sponsor and coached tournament teams for many years. Basso was there for Dickson during Tanner's funeral and organized her entire softball team to attend Dickson's farewell party when he left Highlands County to move to a different group home in Hardee. She participates in other sports with Special STARS such as track and field and bowling. She also helps with numerous fundraisers to generate dollars for Special STARS.
Last year, Special STARS established the Joe Singha Memorial Rookie of the Year award in memory of Singha, who passed away in February 2013. That award was presented once again to a special athlete who was playing for their first time on a team. They have to demonstrate excellent playing skills, good sportsmanship and overall team spirit. There were four newcomers to the field this year - Gwen Beavers, James Beavers, Jonathan Beavers, Katie Gibson, Butch Riley, James Reed, and Nicole Warner.
The coaches from all six teams cast their ballots and selected Gwen Beavers of Sebring as this year's winner. Beavers played on Dee's Place team. Singha's step-sister, Angie Ruckman, attended the event to present the trophy to Beavers.
"I am so honored to get this award with Joe's name on it. I have known Joe since I was 3 years old," Beavers said. "I remember when I first met Joe. I was on the swing set at school and he came up to me to ask if I needed a push in the swing. I said yes and he pushed me real high."
Another new award was given to the Hardee County Rookie of the Year since this was the first year Hardee offered softball to its athletes. They brought over a team and had several athletes compete in skills. The Rookie of the Year for Hardee was Carey McQuaig.
Other awards presented were given to Donavan Harper of Lampe & Kiefer Hearing Aid Center who won Coach Sportsmanship; Francisco Hernandez of Heacock Insurance Group won Community Partner Sportsmanship; Jack Garnett of Hardee County's Florida Hospital team won Special Athlete Sportsmanship; Tim Ritenour of Dee's Place won Best Coach; Lori Bustamante of McIntyre's Mavericks won Best Community Partner; and Eddie Thomas of Coffee News won Best Special Athlete.
Dee's Place, coached by Tim Ritenour and Stacy Andrews, was the winner of this coed slow-pitch softball tournament. They beat Heacock Insurance Group, coached by Craig Sutliff, in extra innings in the final championship game to take the first place trophy.
In addition to taking home the first place trophy, the entire team from Dee's Place will be heading to watch a Tampa Bay Rays on April 6 as part of their winnings.
Lampe Kiefer Hearing Aid, coached by Harper, played in the consolation bracket against Coffee News, coached by Andy and Mary Basso, for the third place trophy. Lampe & Kiefer finished third. Other teams were Florida Hospital, coached by Sissy Camacho, of Hardee County, and McIntyre's Mavericks, coached by Jaime Bustamante. Raymond and Becky McIntyre sponsored the Mavericks.
All of the coaches were given medals by the special athletes on their teams to show appreciation for their efforts.
There were 16 special athletes from Highlands and Hardee counties learning the fundamentals of playing softball in a skill level. Highlands was known as J & J Angels, sponsored by David and Doris Magowan. Heartland Riders Association sponsored the Hardee athletes. They competed for medals for throwing, fielding, batting and running the bases. Danielle Jordon coached the skill level.
Skill level participants getting first place were Dasan Jordon and Jimmy Phipps of Highlands and Sue Egnoski and T.J. Camacho of Hardee. Second place was won by Patricia Butterfield, Eddie Mae Jones and Connie Sharp, of Hardee and Joe Peacock, Gary Barwick and Sue Randolph of Highlands. Third place winners were Linda Decker and Diane Brown of Hardee and Frances Goff and Perry Bright of Highlands. Sondra Jones, of Hardee, won fourth while Tammie Fennell, of Highlands, won fifth place.
The Home Run Derby was open for men, women, special athletes, teens and children. Winners and their categories were Heather Barnes, women; Derek Aul, men; Gregg Ruggs and Greg Robinson, special athletes; and DaAagnan Sims, children.
South Florida State College was the major All-Star sponsor for the tournament along with Sebring Elks Lodge 1529, Highlands Sertoma Club and Highlands County Board of County Commissioners. George Quell of the Sebring Elks threw out the first pitch of the tournament early in the morning.
During the opening ceremony, the Avon Park High School Air Force Junior ROTC presented the American flag followed by the national anthem sung by Sebring's Nellie Ford.
The Highlands County Board of County Commissioners donated the usage of the fields for the tourney. Umpires who donated their time were Tom Gailwniky, Roseann Kiefer, Nancy Jones, Patti Verrone, Barb Greenwell, Richard Prince and Mary Manning.
Other tournament sponsors included Reflections on Silver Lake, Highlands Independent Bank, Stephenson-Nelson Funeral Home, King Equipment, Jim and Carol Phipps, Beta Sigma Phi and Morris Funeral Chapel.
Overall, the tournament generated approximately $3,500. Proceeds from the tournament went to Special STARS to help pay for the 12 different sports and six recreational activities done throughout the year for more than 400 athletes with physical and mental disabilities in Highlands and Hardee counties.