A wide spectrum of athletes and sports were honored as the Southern Oregon Sports Commission held its inaugural banquet Thursday at the Santo Community Center.
During the ceremony, which was attended by about 200 people and recognized the Mail Tribune’s top 10 sports stories of 2014, male and female athletes of the year were announced and the top honor, the commission’s sports advocate of the year, was presented.
Southern Oregon University quarterback Austin Dodge, the NAIA player of the year who led the Raiders to their first national championship, received the award as top male athlete.
Former Cascade Christian swimmer Breanna Sapienza, an eight-time state champion who now competes for Vanderbilt University, received the female award.
Jerry and Zellah Swartsley, who founded the Pear Blossom Run in 1977 and were the longest-running race directors in the country when they turned it over 35 years later to the Rogue Valley Family YMCA, were hailed as the sports advocates of the year.
The sports commission, part of the Chamber of Medford/Jackson County and overseen by Travel Medford, was formed two years ago to enhance sports tourism. Its mission is to encourage collaboration between sports leaders, advocate for facilities, market events and support those already in place.
Dodge beat out a tough field for the top male honor, edging SOU runner Eric Avila, SOU wrestler Brock Gutches, Kansas City Royals pitcher Jeremy Guthrie and former St. Mary’s and current Northwestern golfer Dylan Wu.
Dodge, sporting a bow tie, flew in from Portland earlier in the day to accept the award.
He nodded to his fellow Raider athletes, Avila and Gutches, and mentioned the accomplishments of Guthrie and Wu and how impressed he was with all of the finalists’ credentials.
“Each and every one of those guys deserves this award as well,” said Dodge.
Dodge starred in coach Craig Howard’s high-flying offense, leading SOU to a 55-31 victory over Marian University in the championship game in December.
He was the Raiders’ first player of the year and obliterated the national record book. Among his NAIA career records are 154 passing touchdowns, 17,250 passing yards, 1,253 completions, 1,955 attempts, 17,566 total yards and 373.7 yards per game.
“It’s always been ingrained in my mind, ever since I was a young kid, that any individual award is the result of a team effort, and that’s what I’ve kind of stuck with my whole career,” said Dodge. “That’s what coach Howard and the coaching staff at SOU have really kept going in my values and my morals.
“Being a national champion and having the four years I was able to have academically and athletically and having the opportunities provided to me has just been great. This award kind of caps that off.”
Sapienza wasn’t available because she’s in the midst of school and her swimming season at Vanderbilt, where the freshman has already set a school record.
She sent a video expressing regret that she couldn’t attend and thanking the commission for the honor.
She beat out former South Medford basketball player Ashley Bolston, distance runner Marci Klimek Gage, North Medford track and field standout and soccer player Halley Folsom and SOU pole vaulter Stephanie Techler.
“I feel truly blessed to be honored, not only for myself but for my sport of swimming,” said Sapienza, who won the last two of her state titles as a senior for the Challengers, including a meet-record swim in the 100-yard butterfly at the Class 3A/2A/1A championships.
“I’d also like to thank my coaches and my family,” she said. “Without their daily support, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
It was noted by emcee Patsy Smullin of KOBI-TV that with so many top-flight runners on the program, it was appropriate the advocate award be bestowed upon the Swartsleys.
She mentioned their Pear Blossom Run motto, “Everyone’s a winner,” but said, “tonight, they stand alone” as SOSC winners.
“It’s hard to express what it was like for all those years to be such a special part of our community and all the organizations, people and volunteers,” said Zellah. “We’re just very, very grateful, and we will treasure all of those memories.”
The Swartsleys had dignitaries at the first race in 1977. Bill Bowerman, who grew up in Medford and co-founded Nike, was the starter. The race winner was Frank Shorter, who five years earlier won the marathon in the Olympics.
“We began organizing races because there weren’t any,” said Jerry.
The first race attracted nearly 550 runners. The Swartsleys made bibs of thick cardboard paper. They later cut squares of vinyl and made their own, lighter bibs.
“We still have the scissors,” said Zellah.
The race now approaches 6,000 entrants and features a variety of distances for all ages and running levels.
“The challenge of putting together a race is like the challenge of putting together a giant puzzle,” said Jerry. “For us, it’s the joy of seeing all the happy faces. It’s about the people, those we met, those we worked with, volunteers, sponsors, etc. Those who participate, their stories, their challenges, their successes and their smiles.
“We love the passion that individuals have who are involved in sports, the positive energy, the zest for life. For us, it’s been a great run. Thank you.”
Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or at firstname.lastname@example.org