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Success of High School Sports Banquet truly is a team effort

Grant athletes BrandLombardino senior track (left) Brooke Buckley senior volleyball player talk banquet. | Michael Schmidt~Sun-Times Media

Grant athletes Brandon Lombardino a senior in track (left) and Brooke Buckley a senior volleyball player talk at the banquet. | Michael Schmidt~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: June 18, 2013 6:05AM

Just about every day, it seems as though something happens to serve as a reminder that it really is a small world after all.

And when that something happens twice in the same day, well, then you really have something to talk ­— or in this case — write about.

And we’ll get to it in a moment. But first, let’s consider how every sports fan has days that are special to him/her — days you look forward to on the calendar each year.

For some sports fans, one of those days — Day 1 of the NFL Draft – just occurred.

Over here in this corner of the sports world, one of the days that’s always special is Regional Final Friday during the March Madness high school boys basketball playoffs.

There are a lot of games that night and most of the matchups are of high quality. The gyms are electric, and there’s a win-or-go-home aura in the air that just makes for a magical day for a high school hoops fan.

Another of those magical days occurred Thursday evening at the Village of Round Lake Beach Cultural and Civic Center. The occasion was The News-Sun newspaper/ Web site’s annual High School Sports Banquet, in which we pay tribute to the county’s elite student-athletes.

The event is made possible through the generosity of the Village of Round Lake Beach, which provides the facility; Kennedy’s Creative Awards of Waukegan, which provides plaques for the honorees — All-County football players, girls volleyball players, boys and girls basketball players; and our Athletes of the Week — and Catered Productions, which is based out of Libertyville and provides the food for a wonderful dinner.

The Village of Round Lake Beach, Catered Productions, and Kennedy’s Creative Awards have been on our team for seven years now, and each year, they help make the banquet better than ever.

And, yes, the banquet was part of the “small world” reminder ... the second part.

The first part occurred about eight hours before the banquet began when a chance encounter occurred in a store in Waukegan. A young man — early 20s — approached in a friendly manner and asked if the guy writing these words had ever been a school-bus driver.

For the record, we all have a secret life, and you now know one person’s secret — that for about a dozen years back in the day, he drove a school bus in the Lake Forest, Lake Bluff, North Chicago and Waukegan areas.

Anyway, it turned out that when this young man was a grade-schooler, that he rode to East School one year and then Central School another year in Lake Bluff on a bus driven by you-know-who.

What are the odds of that happening? The young man offered up his address and the schools he went to, and it brought back a lot of great memories, and an appreciation that after all these years, the kid remembered “Bus Driver Jeff.”

Now, we fast-forward eight hours to the banquet, and the honoring of the county’s top student-athletes. One of the honorees was Lake Forest High School distance runner Helen Schlachtenhaufen, who couldn’t attend the banquet because she was in downstate Charleston preparing to run in the state girls track meet on Friday.

Helen is a senior at Lake Forest, and she has a brother, John, who should be a freshman at LFHS by now.

Anyway, here’s a blast-from-the-past story about Helen’s brother and their mom, courtesy of “Bus Driver Jeff.”

Back in the day in Lake Forest, kindergarten was a half-day of school, and when John was starting afternoon kindergarten, he and his mom were in front of their house about 11:45 a.m. waiting for the bus to pick him up on his very first day as a student. And sure enough, “Bus Driver Jeff” showed up.

What should have happened was the welcoming of John to the bus and small talk about being excited about the first day of school, etc.

But the bus driver also was a sports writer, and so when he opened the door to greet John Schlachtenhaufen and his mom, the first sentence out of his mouth was, “Is this John?” And then the second sentence out of his mouth was addressed to his mom and went as follows: “When he starts playing little league baseball, how on earth is he going to get his last name printed on the back of his shirt?”

True story.

Here’s a mom nervous with her son about his very first day of school, and a bus driver shows up who’s teasing them about their last name.

As a result, this was the first and only time in all the years of our High School Sports Banquet that it was good news that an elite student-athlete (Helen Schlachtenhaufen) and her mom could not attend.

(If you’re scoring at home, “Schlachtenhaufen” is one of two names kept on a save/recall key on this terminal. The other is Warren High School girls basketball coach John Stanczykiwicz.)

As for the rest of the banquet, something happened that really was pretty cool.

Each year, we have a guest speaker, and we try to bring in someone who has a connection to an area high school. A few years back, Billy McKinney from Zion-Benton, who now works with the Milwaukee Bucks, spoke. Last year, the speaker was North Chicago High School grad Chris Krause, who is the founder of the National Collegiate Scouting Association, which matches high school athletes with colleges that are good fits for them.

Thursday evening, the featured speaker was Lake Forest High School grad Sarah Spain, who played basketball and was all-state in field hockey and track as a Scout. She went on to attend Cornell University and now can be heard every day as SportsCenter anchor/talk-show host at Chicago radio station ESPN-1000.

She is a living example of what you can do if you follow your dreams, work hard and refuse to lose, and she talked about the winding road she’s taken that has led her to ESPN-1000.

Her talk was great for the student-athletes and their parents to hear.

But what was really cool about having Sarah in the house had to do with something Chris Krause said during his talk a year ago.

In talking about working hard and pursuing excellence, Chris said to the athletes that, who knows ... maybe some day in the future, you’ll be up here doing the speaking instead of sitting in the audience and doing the listening.

That had never happened before in the 20-some years we’ve been holding the High School Sports Banquet (we can’t say “28th” annual because we did miss one year in there; it seems like it was because we were moving the newspaper office from Sheridan Road in Waukegan to near where WalMart now is located in Waukegan).

But it happened on Thursday. Back in the day, Sarah Spain was a banquet invitee/attendee because of her athletic success at Lake Forest High School, and Thursday, she was back to encourage the next generation of athletes to follow their dreams.

It felt good ... almost good enough to make one want to get behind the wheel of a school bus one more time.


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