Line up the limos, break out the red carpet, play some moving instrumental music and cue the unnecessarily long acceptance speeches, it’s that time of the year when Riverside-Brookfield Landmark sports honors it Team, Male Athlete, Female Athlete, Coach and Inspirational Athlete of the Year recipients.
Envelopes please, and the winners are…
The Riverside-Brookfield High School boys basketball team turned in a historic season to earn the Riverside-Brookfield Landmark Team of the Year honors. The Bulldogs edged host Morton 66-61 before a standing room only crowd to notch the program’s first sectional title. Along the way, RBHS (28-4, most wins in program history) won its own Bill VandeMerkt Thanksgiving Classic, 14th straight conference championship as well as regional and sectional titles.
RBHS senior Sam Johnson, the Metro Suburban Conference MVP, along with teammates Daniko Jackson, Jalen Clanton and Mark Smith earned all-conference honors.
“It’s been an amazing year,” RBHS coach Tom McCloskey said after the sectional win. “I don’t know if [the atmosphere of the sectional final] was the best I’ve seen but it’s right up there. To be honest, I think we did this [winning a sectional] for all the guys who have played basketball at RB. I know they’re sharing it with us.”
In recognition of his stellar work on the basketball court, Johnson has also been selected as the Riverside-Brookfield Landmark Male Athlete of the Year. Johnson averaged 17.8 points and 11.8 rebounds and was named third-team all-state by the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association.
“I’m more aggressive this season than the past few years,” Johnson said during the season. “This year I’m scoring in a variety of ways. I’ve also taken my rebounding to the next level.”
Speaking of next level accomplishments, The Riverside-Brookfield Landmark Female Athlete of the Year Stephanie Lin‘s athletic resume is about as good as it gets.
The LTHS senior became the first badminton player in Illinois history to win three consecutive state singles championships when she came from behind to edge Hinsdale South sophomore Judy Yang 16-21, 21-18, 21-13 at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston.
“I could not be any happier,” Lin said. “It was the best way to end my senior year.
Lin, who compiled a 116-10 record during her three-year reign, is headed to Cornell, where she plans to major in bioengineering. She scored a perfect 36 on her ACT and ranks in the top 1 percent of her class.
Perhaps no one envisioned RBHS football coach Brendan Curtin as this year’s recipient of the Riverside-Brookfield Landmark Coach of the Year award.
During his first two years as the Bulldogs’ head coach, the team finished 2-7 in 2012 and 1-8 in 2013. Curtin guided the team to an impressive turnaround this season, however, as the Bulldogs finished 6-4 overall with a 4-1 record in the Metro Suburban and postseason appearance.
“We return a great group of kids next season,” Curtin said. “Our players know that we can continue to have success. It’s in our control as long as we remain focused. I just love football, especially RB football. I think we should have something going on every day of the year about Bulldog football.”
Our final pair of winners, Renee Kunkel of RBHS and Liza Gabrek of Lyons Township, share well-deserved recognition as the Riverside-Brookfield Landmark Inspirational Athlete of the Year. Both have shown an incredibly positive attitude, poise and perspective amid personal adversity.
Kunkel, who graduated from RBHS in June, had life-saving open-heart surgery in 2013. She also has a missing thyroid gland, which was removed in eighth grade to cure the thyroid cancer discovered during a routine physical exam.
That Kunkel, a bright and personable young lady, has remained positive through her health problems is nothing short of amazing. Her recovery from the cancer, which required her to be quarantined for several days because she was radioactive from the radiation treatment, was remarkable enough.
On February 3, 2014, Kunkel marked the one-year anniversary of her open-heart surgery as a key reserve on the RBHS girls basketball team. Even though the Bulldogs lost to Glenbard South 59-48 that evening, the day offered Kunkel a time of reflection and thanks.
“I reminisced from where I was a year ago and how far I’ve come since [the surgery],” Kunkel said. “I didn’t want to the day to be all about me. We lost the game, but no matter the outcome we showed great heart. I’m so grateful for my family, friends, teammates, coaches and the entire RB community for their support. The whole day was very special.
“I’ve learned so many lessons – I have a little journal of them,” added Kunkel, an honor roll student. “I would say a positive attitude is No. 1. I don’t think I would have gotten through what I have without a positive attitude.
“I never like to show that something is bothering me. I never let it get me down. Like, okay, I have to have open-heart surgery, I’ll make the best of it. We’ll get through this and make it a learning experience.”
Gabrek, an LTHS soccer player, was playing against Libertyville in a Pepsi Showdown game at Bennett Field during her junior year when she suffered a major stroke.
The stroke was caused by a rare congenital condition called MoyaMoya disease, in which blood vessels in the brain are abnormally small and clustered together.
Gabrek, who was in a coma for several days, underwent four hours of neurosurgery, during which her skull was cut open and the blood drained from the affected region of her brain. The operation was a success, though Gabrek’s ordeal was just beginning.
Her ongoing recovery, which could take up to five years, is even more amazing. Paralyzed on her left side, she could not walk or talk. After a five-week stay at Loyola, Gabrek spent 14 weeks at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. She now splits her time between her home and a local rehab facility.
Gabrek has made huge strides. She returned to school, taking two classes at LTHS and others through home tutoring, and graduated on time this year. Though she was unable to play soccer, Gabrek remained a co-captain and attended all LTHS games and practices.
“One thing I’ve learned is that life definitely isn’t a guarantee,” Gabrek said. “One day you can be all happy and playing soccer for one of the best teams in the state, then the next day have a stroke that could be the end to your life.
“[My advice] is don’t give up. The don’t-give-up factor is probably the biggest component to recovery. When you give up, that’s probably the easiest thing you can do, but when you don’t give up, that’s when you recover.”
Congratulations to this year’s award winners, the Best of the best. To see our list of Riverside-Brookfield Landmark All-Stars, go to page 26.
The award winners and all-stars will be celebrated with a sports awards party on Wednesday, June 17 at the Riverside-Brookfield office. Special thanks to Winberie’s and Bua Hana, who are providing food for the party.
-Matt Le Cren, Bill Stone contributed to this story