26th annual Northeast Sports Awards Banquet

Over the years, Northeast Philadelphia competitors have certainly established themselves throughout the local sports scene.

And this year was no different.

Neighborhood athletes and coaches have once again embraced the tradition of excellence in our community. They have awed and entertained us with their talent, enthusiasm and relentless hard work.

It is the Northeast Times’ pleasure to commend their accomplishments as we announce the winners in baseball and softball, as well as general awards, all of whom will be recognized at the 26th annual Northeast Sports Awards Banquet, scheduled for May 19.

The event will honor neighborhood athletes and bestow more than 30 awards in such categories as Most Courageous Athlete, Unsung Hero, Scholar Athlete, and Player and Coach of the Year, among many others.

So without further ado, here are the top athletes chosen by the Northeast Times

Spring Awards

Girls Soccer Coach of the Year

Brianna O’Donnell, Franklin Towne Charter

Brianna O’Donnell is amidst creating a dynasty on the Franklin Towne Charter soccer field.

The women’s coach for the past two years, O’Donnell has guided the Coyotes to 16-3-2 record during that time. She is a pioneer for her players both on the soccer field and in the classroom, always emphasizing the importance of academics as well as athletics.

In addition to coaching the Coyotes’ soccer squad, O’Donnell has also coached the women’s varsity basketball team for the past seven years.  She is a member of the school’s history department, where she currently teaches psychology and sociology.

O’Donnell has become an incredible role model for both her players and students. She has selflessly dedicated herself to her beloved student athletes at Franklin Towne Charter and she is this year’s Girls Soccer Coach of the Year.

Public League Girls Soccer Player of the Year

Sarah Rodgers, Franklin Towne Charter

It’s been four years in the making, and now Sarah Rodgers has evolved into the face of the franchise at Franklin Towne Charter.

The senior team captain is currently leading her soccer squad in goals and assists this season, helping the Coyotes score a 7-1-1 overall record, including five shutouts. With Rodgers at the forefront, the Coyotes rode a six game winning streak throughout the first half of the season.

A four-year varsity starter, Rodgers has been selected as an All-Public honoree three times. She is the heart and soul of the Coyotes and is considered by many to be one of the top players to ever wear a Franklin Towne Charter soccer jersey.

Baseball Coach of the Year

George Dufner, Samuel Fels High School

George Dufner is a man of progression.

Since taking over the Samuel Fels High School baseball team in 2007, he has continuously improved the Panther program. From heightening numbers to teaching skills to emphasizing the importance of education, Dufner has been an incredible role model for his student athletes.

And it’s all been leading up to this.

With Dufner leading the way, the Panthers are currently undefeated in league play this season, clinching first place in the Public League C Division. They’ve outscored opponents by 47 runs thus far.

Dufner showcases the quality components of a successful coach. He possessed great knowledge of the game and continuously bestows his time, effort and capabilities towards the talented baseball players at Samuel Fels High School.

Public League Baseball Player of the Year

Israel Diaz, Frankford

Israel Diaz has played a pivotal role in the Pioneers’ success over the past four seasons, but it looks like he saved the best for last.

Now a senior shortstop and pitcher for the Frankford High School baseball team, Diaz has hit his stride this spring, where he guided the Pioneers to an 7-1 record, good enough for first place in the Public League A Division.

Diaz has proven himself as a natural leader for the youthful Pioneers this season, leading by example on the diamond. The 5-foot-9 utility player can hit, throw, run and can catch any grounder hit his way with ease.

A lifelong competitor on the diamond, Diaz has wholeheartedly dedicated himself to the craft. He possesses the raw talent and baseball IQ needed to succeed and is this year’s Public League Baseball Player of the Year.

Catholic League Baseball Player of the Year

Kevin Mack, Archbishop Ryan High School

While the Archbishop Ryan High School baseball team has experienced plenty of ups and downs this spring, there was one consistent shining star for the Raiders — Kevin Mack. 

The senior left handed pitcher and outfielder has proven himself on the diamond amongst the highly competitive Catholic League. He is 2-0 on the hill this season, fanning seven batters and walking only one.

An All Catholic honoree in two positions — pitcher and outfield — Mack is the essence of a team player, doing whatever he can for the betterment of his squad.

In addition to his four years on the varsity baseball team at Archbishop Ryan, Mack is also a member of the varsity soccer and swim team. He has consistently earned honors throughout his tenure at the Academy Road school and has successfully embraced the lifestyle of a student athlete.

Softball Coach of the Year

Paul Commarota, Abraham Lincoln

The Abraham Lincoln High School softball team has successfully evolved from a crew of inexperienced rookies into major Public League contenders this season.

Behind their transformation is Paul Commarota.

Equipped with a skilled, but inexperienced squad this season, the Railsplitters’ coach successfully taught his players the basic fundamentals of the game. He quickly formed a bond with his players, encouraging dedication both on the field and in the classroom. He demands the best from his team, and at the same time cherishes the pure enjoyment of the game.

With Commarota leading the way, the Railsplitters are currently 7-2 overall, outscoring opponents by more than 45 runs this season.

Commarota has dedicated himself to the Abraham Lincoln softball family and is known for his commitment of time and effort for the betterment of his squad.

Public League Softball Player of the Year

Ashley Hagan, Northeast

Batters beware of Ashley Hagan.

A senior hurler for the Northeast High School softball team, Hagan heroics on the mound have earned her a ruthless reputation this season. She’s guided Northeast High to a 9-1 record — pitching every inning for the Vikings.

A four-year varsity starter, Hagan has dedicated herself to life on the hill, consistently bettering her pitch placement and speed over the years. Her commitment has allowed the natural athlete to rise as one of the top pitchers in the Philadelphia Public League.

Hagan’s skills aren’t limited to the mound. Also a star on offense, she’s knocked in two doubles, one homer and six RBIs this season, helping the Vikings outscore opponents by an astonishing 114 runs. 

Catholic League Softball Player of the Year

Alex Stermel, Nazareth Academy

Softball has become a way of life for Alex Stermel.

And it shows.

A senior at Nazareth Academy High School, Stermel’s dedication has become evident on the diamond. She can hit, field, throw, catch. She can do it all.

Stermel mainly works as a first baseman, but is equipped to cover almost any position. She’s earned a starting position with the Pandas over the past three seasons — she attended Little Flower High School her freshman year — helping guide Nazareth to a pair of consecutive Athletic Association of Catholic Academies championship titles in as many years.

This season, with Stermel at the forefront, Nazareth has gone undefeated in league play and 13-1 overall. The Pandas are currently riding a 12-game winning streak.

When she’s not competing at Nazareth Academy, Stermel travels with the Intensity, a Junior Olympic softball team that competes in various tournaments and college showcases throughout the country.

An honor student in the classroom, Stermel will continue her athletic and academic endeavors at Temple University next year, where she has accepted an athletic scholarship.

Annual Awards

College Player of the Year

Mike Varanavage, Bloomsburg University

For Mike Varanavage, it’s been a very grand finale.

This year marked the Bloomsburg University senior’s final football season of his collegiate career, and he certainly made it count. Varanavage, a linebacker who towers at six feet tall and is 220 pounds strong, served as his team’s captain this season, guiding his fellow Huskies to an undefeated record in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference this season (10-3 overall).

A product of Archbishop Ryan High School, Varanavage led his team in tackles this year with 98 — 53 of them were solo — and was seventh overall in the PSAC. He snagged three interceptions this season, recovered a pair of fumbled and forced two.

Varanavage’s heroics on the gridiron earned him PSAC East Defensive Player of the Week three times. He was named the PSAC Eastern Division Defensive Player of the Year and also to the 2010 Daktronics, Inc., Division II All-Super Region 1 football team.

Holy Family University Female Athlete of the Year

Catherine Carr, basketball

There’s no stopping Catherine Carr.

Even well after her basketball career was over at Holy Family University, the four-year star forward continued to score big for the Tigers.

Carr was recently awarded All-American honors for her heroics on the hardwood. She is the first women’s basketball player in Holy Family University history to receive this honor.

That’s not the only reason Carr is now in the record books at Holy Family. She also completed her four-year career with 1,995 points, a new school record.

Carr finished this season — her last with Holy Family University — leading her team in points (16.4), rebounds (6.3) and assists (4). The Tigers went 24-5 overall, including a trip to the CACC Championship Final.

This winter, she was named All-CACC First Team for the third consecutive season, and also received CACC All-Tournament honors and Daktronnics All-East Region First Team.

The six-foot student athlete will graduate on May 15 with a degree in sports management and marketing. She will surely be remembered as one of the best to ever compete for the Tigers.

Holy Family University Male Athlete of the Year

Colin Whalen, soccer

Colin Whalen may be new to the Holy Family University men’s soccer team, but it didn’t take long for him to make a name for himself.

A junior transfer student from La Salle University, Whalen guided the Tigers in scoring with 16 points, netting four goals and recording a team-high eight assists this season.

An All-Conference selection, Whalen was ranked second in the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference in assists per game. He was also named to the Daktronics, Inc., Men’s Soccer All-East Region Team as voted by the sports information directors of the NCAA Division II East Region.

His natural capabilities on the soccer field and team oriented attitude have proven to be a successful match for Whalen, who is this year’s Holy Family University Male Athlete of the Year. 

Most Courageous Athlete of the Year

Taylor Steinberg, Nazareth Academy

Taylor Steinberg is the essence of a courageous athlete.

At just 17 years old, she has been diagnosed with cancer twice, and yet she has remained a model of devotion and strong will for her peers at Nazareth Academy.

A junior student athlete, Steinberg competes for the Pandas’ soccer and lacrosse squads, however, she was forced to miss the spring lacrosse season after being diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. She is now enduring regular chemotherapy treatments at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

This isn’t the first time Steinberg has been faced with adversity. Three years ago — as an eighth-grader at Nazareth Grade School — Taylor was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. In February 2007, she had successful thyroid surgery at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and over the next two years, underwent a series of chemotherapy treatments.

Despite all of her hardships, Steinberg has maintained an unconditional optimistic attitude. She is a valiant athlete who has continually overcome hurdles in her life to prove herself amongst the best. She is always eager and able to put in the time and work, regardless of the challenges she has encountered along the way. She is powerful in both mind and body; she is this year’s Most Courageous Athlete.

Sportsmanship Award

Musa Kamara, Samuel Fels

The only thing more impressive than Musa Kamara’s skills on the soccer field is his attitude.

The Samuel Fels High School junior forward guided the Panthers through and almost-perfect season this fall, compiling an 11-1 overall record with five shutouts. He led by example on the field, heading the Panthers’ electrifying offense that averaged six goals per game and outscored opponents by 54.

Kamara certainly played a vital role in the Panthers’ success this season, scoring 25 goals. He netted three hat tricks in the process and scored four goals, a personal best, twice this season — against Swenson on Oct. 5 and against Furness on Oct. 18.

But just as impressive as his talent on the pitch is his persona off it. Kamara worked as a team co-captain this season, and handled his leadership responsibilities like a pro. He embraced a positive attitude, and his undying enthusiasm became contagious to his fellow Panthers. Also an honor student in the classroom, Kamara has showcased everything a successful student athlete should be.

Unsung Hero Award

Derek Ross, Father Judge

There were many reasons that the Father Judge High School soccer squad excelled on the pitch this season —experience, talent and dedication.

Then, there was Derek Ross.

A senior team captain for the Crusaders, Ross embraced his strong but silent persona. He worked as a sweeper, whose calm and focused attitude helped him dominate the backfield. With Ross leading the way, the Crusaders earned a 15-5 overall record, including a remarkable 10 shutouts. 

A four-year player for the Crusaders, Ross helped net a pair of Catholic League Championship triumphs, two city titles and a stats championship during that time.

In addition to his success on the pitch, Ross has also scored big in the classroom — consistently earning honors throughout his tenure at Father Judge.

Despite all of his accomplishments, Ross never hogged the limelight. Instead, he embraced the importance of teamwork and always put his fellow Crusaders before himself. He is a talented athlete, generous teammate and the recipient of this year’s Unsung Hero award.  

The Northeast Philadelphian Award

Mike Zolk, Neumann Goretti

High schools throughout the City of Brotherly Love have athletic teams that feature players from Northeast Philadelphia.

But none has had the impact of Mike Zolk.

A Far Northeast resident, Zolk attends Neumann Goretti in South Philadelphia, where he is currently helping the Saints baseball squad dominate the Catholic League.

A senior second baseman and pitcher, Zolk is a perfect example of a five tool player. He can hit for average, hit for power, throw, catch and man, can he run.

Nicknamed “Zoom,” the speedster has guided the Saints to an undefeated record this season. Neumann Goretti is currently sitting atop the Catholic League Blue Division with a 5-0 record (8-0 overall).

Those aren’t the only impressive numbers Zolk has helped rack up this season. He’s slugged four doubles, three triples and two homeruns, accounting for 16 runs batted in this spring.

Also a star in the classroom, Zolk will continue his academic and athletic endeavors at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill next year, where he recently signed a Letter of Intent to compete with the Par Heels.  

Female Scholar Athlete of the Year

Alexis Rodriguez, Abraham Lincoln

Alexis Rodriguez has mastered quite a juggling act at Abraham Lincoln High School.

The senior tri-sport athlete is a member of the Railsplitters’ varsity volleyball, basketball and softball teams, but perhaps her greatest work is in the classroom.

One of the top students in her class, Rodriguez — who plans to work towards a nursing degree next year — has consistently earned honors throughout her tenure at Abraham Lincoln.

When she’s not hitting the books, Rodriguez is dominating Public League competition. She guided the Railsplitters volleyball squad to an undefeated record throughout the regular season this year, winning all 11 outings. The squad outscored opponents by 30 during that time, including nine shutouts.

Following volleyball season, Rodriguez sprinted onto the hardwood, where she helped Lincoln go 7-7 overall on the basketball courts, including an appearance in the Public League playoffs.

Currently working as the Railsplitters’ starting third baseman, Rodriguez is really stepping up to the plate this softball season. On April 15, she recorded three hits, including a grand slam, helping Lincoln oust Edison High 15-0. She’s also knocked in five RBIs, courtesy of two doubles and a triple, guiding the Railsplitters to a 7-2 record.

Rodriguez is an exceptional competitor, but more importantly, she appreciates the importance of education and knowledge in the classroom, which makes her a solid choice for this year’s Female Scholar Athlete of the Year.

Male Scholar Athlete of the Yea

Tony DiPietro, Northeast

Tony DiPietro can do it all.

The Northeast High School senior student athlete works as team captain for the Vikings’ varsity soccer and wrestling squads and is also ranked in the top ten percent of his class.

A four-year varsity soccer player, DiPietro has consistently guided the Vikings to post-season play during that time. This season, Northeast went 9-3 overall, including five shutouts. The Vikings dominated the competition, outscoring opponents by 17 goals en route to a Public League championship appearance.

Once soccer season was complete, DiPietro migrated to Northeast High’s gymnasium where he continued his success with the Vikings’ wrestling squad.

He helped the Vikings to an almost-perfect record on the mats this winter. Northeast finished 9-1, including a nine-game winning streak and a Public League championship appearance.

Despite going directly from soccer to wrestling and training year round for both sports, DiPietro has consistently ensured his schoolwork is his number-one priority.

He has conquered the art of time management. Whether he’s on the soccer field, wrestling mats or in the classroom, DiPietro excels at everything he does. His continued success —both academically and athletically — is a true testament to his hard work and dedication. 

Female Athlete of the Year

Destiny Oxford, Northeast

Destiny Oxford is racking up all the right numbers.

A four-year varsity athlete on the Northeast High School basketball and softball teams, Oxford has earned eight varsity letters, eight postseason appearances, seven winning records and one championship title.

Not to mention, she is also a team captain on both the basketball court and softball field, and still has time to score consistent honors in the classroom.

This winter, Oxford was an excellent leader for the Vikings’ youthful basketball squad. She guided her beloved team to an 11-4 overall record this season en route to playoff contention.

Following basketball season, Oxford relocated to the softball diamond. She enjoyed no days off, no breaks, no off-season. Instead, she immediately got to work. A selfless player who always puts the betterment of her team first, Oxford left her usual position at first base to catch this season, helping the Vikings fill a void position behind the plate. With Oxford leading the way, Northeast is currently 9-1 thus far this season, outscoring opponents by more than 110 runs.

The modest and humble Oxford has proven herself time and time again as one of the top student athletes in the area. She has mastered the art of succeeding athletically, as well as academically, and has truly embraced everything Northeast High School has to offer.

Male Athlete of the Year

Deion Barnes, Northeast

It’s certainly been an unforgettable year for Deion Barnes.

The Northeast High School senior helped make history this fall, when he guided the mighty Vikings to their first Public League football championship title since 1983. Northeast went undefeated (6-0) in the Gold Division and 9-3 overall.

After receiving a flood of college scholarship offers — 14 to be exact — the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Division I recruit will continue his career with the Penn State Nittany Lions in the fall.

Known for his athleticism, backside pursuit and quickness off the ball, Barnes’ football resume speaks for itself. Rivals.com named Barnes a four-star prospect who is ranked sixth in the nation at his position and second in Pennsylvania.

ESPN.com grades him a three-star prospect with a scout’s grade of 78. As a sophomore, Barnes registered 50 tackles and 11 quarterback sacks. As a junior, Barnes terrorized the league, posting 64 tackles, 25 tackles for loss, eight sacks, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery for a touchdown and one blocked field goal while playing defense.

Barnes’ senior year was the most memorable.

While the defense held opponents to an average of 11 points per game, Barnes recorded 85 tackles, 25 tackles for loss, 13 sacks and three blocked punts — one of which he returned for a touchdown.

While playing tight end for Northeast, Barnes tallied 22 catches for 389 yards and four touchdowns, including the game-winner in the Public League Championship game against George Washington High School.

Throughout all of the hype and limelight this year, Barnes has remained humble and grounded. He consistently put his team first and always gave 100 percent on the field. Barnes is an exceptional football player and an intelligent student. He will surely be remembered as one of the top players in local football history.

The 26th Annual Northeast Sports Awards Banquet will be held Thursday, May 19 from 6 to 10 p.m., at Cannstatters, located at 9130 Academy Road. Tickets for the Northeast Sports Banquet cost $22 per person and include dinner. Winners do not need to purchase a ticket. Their admission and dinner is free of charge. Ticket purchases for the Northeast Sports Awards Banquet can be sent to: Teri Grumbrecht, Manager, TD Bank, 3930 Woodhaven Road, Philadelphia, PA 19154. Please make checks payable to: Frankford Northeast Rotary Club. ••

Sports editor Melissa Yerkov can be reached at 215-354-3035 or myerkov@bsmphilly.com