Athletic directors at the Class 5A level have proven to be the most invested in controlling their own playoff destiny since a switch to the...
Sarah Bennion made her way to the St. Mary's High gym for the same reason as her schoolmates Thursday morning.
It was an unusual day for an assembly, but the day's early announcement promised a surprise. Oh, and donuts.
One surprise she got was that, oddly, her family was there.
"My parents told me the Chinese embassy was here," she said later, laughing.
Bennion has studied Chinese for four years and might someday combine her fluency with a business degree and pursue work in the Far East. So she really wasn't being gullible if she bought the story her parents, Ted and Kristi, fed her.
When the Bennions were asked to sit in blue folding chairs stenciled with "St. Mary's" and "Crusaders" in the middle of the basketball floor, the senior student body president began to wonder if this was for the Wendy's High School Heisman Award, for which she earlier had been named Oregon's female winner.
Having made it through the state stage, she was in competition to become one of six regional winners, which in turn would make her a finalist for the national award and land her in New York City next month for a televised presentation.
No word on regional winners was forthcoming, however.
"I'd been checking the Wendy's Heisman website every day," said Bennion, a standout and team captain on both the girls soccer and cross country teams this fall. "Even before this meeting, I was checking on my phone."
Principal Jim Meyer quieted the crowd and got to the point: This, indeed, was about Bennion and her state Heisman honor.
Then Mary Lou Stallcup, the president of Wendy's of Southern Oregon, continued the ruse, presenting Bennion with a silver medal as unwitting students applauded vigorously in the bleachers.
Stallcup began to wrap up her speech, then stopped.
"Oh, wait," she said, "that's not the only thing. We have more good news."
She explained the procedure to determine finalists. Bennion looked on, mesmerized, mouth agape.
"Sarah doesn't know this," said Stallcup, "but the real reason I'm here is to tell her she's been selected as one of those as well."
Bennion buried her face in her hands, stifling a gasp and shielding a stunned expression.
Athletic director James Joy was in Meyer's office a couple days earlier when Wendy's representatives notified them of Bennion's selection and how they wanted the announcement to go down.
"We were both so giddy and excited about it," said Joy.
Bennion is only the second Oregonian to be named a finalist in 18 years of the Heisman prep award. By winning one of six regions — she emerged from the 13-state West Region — she earned a $2,000 donation in her name to St. Mary's, a gold medal, a Heisman patch and a $100 Wendy's gift card.
When the gift card was announced, a boy from the stands cooed, "Wennndy's," drawing laughter.
Bennion has never been to New York. She'll go for the Dec. 9 high school awards show, where the boy and girl national winners will be revealed. They will be featured the following night on the collegiate Heisman Trophy show on ESPN. The prep ceremony will be televised a day later on ESPN2.
The national winners each will have $10,000 donated to their schools.
An ESPN film crew was to follow Bennion around school Thursday, including afterward for soccer practice and again for a while this morning.
Flanking the podium Thursday, along with Meyer, Joy, Stallcup and Bennion's family, were Sarah's coaches, Dave Potter in soccer and Joe Volk in cross country and track and field.
When she got the news, Bennion hurried over and hugged each.
"I can't think of a more deserving kid," said Volk. "Her ability to lead, her ability to inspire kids, her ability to be student body president and get up in front of the student body every day and lead them in prayer ... she's the kind of kid you want on your team, in your classroom, in your school."
After the ceremony, Bennion was on cloud nine. And not just because a teacher sidled up to her as she spoke to reporters and told her she needn't worry, on this day, anyway, about a scheduled calculus test.
"I seriously am beyond joy right now," she gushed.
The honor validates her hard work and sacrifice to excel in the classroom — she has a 4.0 GPA — and in athletics.
She's been on track and cross country teams that have won state titles and was named the outstanding female track athlete at the 3A/2A/1A state meet last spring. In soccer, with her starting, the Crusaders were state runners-up in 2010 and are ranked No. 2 this fall.
"I've tried to be good in school and good in sports," said Bennion, "and really, this is just like everything I want to embody me. I'm so glad the Wendy's Heisman people saw that, too."
Joy encouraged about eight students to apply for the award, and three "got to the level where we reviewed their portfolios," he said.
The competition began with 48,000 applicants in the 50 states and the District of Columbia, according to a press release.
Beating out her Crusader peers was the hard part, said Bennion.
"It's an excellent school," she said. "There are a lot of great students, great ACT scores and great athletes, so really, I was most scared about getting past my own school. Whatever comes later is just what comes."
That Bennion praised her peers indicates how special she is, said Joy.
"Sarah's meant so much to our school with everything she's done," he said. "It's been a great deal for her to get recognized for all the hard work she puts into our school."
The only thing better, of course, would be one more big surprise next month in the Big Apple.
Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email firstname.lastname@example.org