Mountain Amateur Athletic Club
By Keith Jarrett
MAAC board member
For more than a half century, the WNC Sports Awards Banquet has honored the best high school and college athletes and teams in this area.
The event, sponsored and conducted by the Mountain Amateur Athletic Club, began in 1957.
Over the years thousands of athletes and teams have been recognized and received awards for their accomplishments and hundreds of students have received scholarships to continue their athletic and academic careers in college.
Held annually for six decades, the even was discontinued after the 2010 event, but community leaders directed by former MAAC treasurer and now club president Billy Cooper raised more than $30,000 from local contributors to revive the event in 2014.
MAAC members also decided in 2014 to concentrate the awards solely on WNC high school athletes and teams.
Held in conjunction with an enshrinement ceremony for the WNC Sports Hall of Fame, the banquet is held celebrated annually in May at the Omni Grove Park Inn and includes dinner, a guest speaker and the awarding of more than 25 plaques and trophies for outstanding team and individual achievement along with scholarships.
Past guest speakers have included famous coaches such as Adolph Rupp, Danny Ford and Mack Brown, and the 2015 speaker will also be this year’s lone WNC Hall inductee Roy Williams, who grew up in Asheville and has won two national championships as basketball coach at North Carolina.
While the banquet includes recognizing such great Hall of Fame figures like football standout Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice, the original intent of founder Gene Oschenreiter, an Asheville business leader and former mayor, was always about the local high-school athletes.
One of the highlights of the evening is the presentation of the Gene Oschenreiter Lifetime Achievement Award, created several years ago to honor someone like its namesake, who gave so much time and energy for the banquet before he died in 2008.
"We would have meetings and talk about a famous guest speaker or what prominent people were going to be enshrined in the hall," recalled Jim Coman, a MAAC member and president of the WNC Sports Hall of Fame.
"But Gene, always in his diplomatic and cordial way, would remind us that the banquet is for the kids. He always stressed that we couldn't let (anything) overshadow what the kids accomplished (and) that we shouldn't let the winners of the awards overshadow the accomplishments of the final nominees."
The memories of the reactions of those kids and parents when a winner's name was announced — and the thought of not carrying on the legacy of a man he loved and admired — haunted Cooper and spurred his interest in reviving the event, which averages more than 500 in attendance.
Having been involved with the banquet since 1992, Cooper — an Asheville businessman who played high school football at Reynolds High — was saddened each of the three springs when banquet time came around and there was no event available to hand out trophies and award the top players and teams.
So, Cooper made it his mission to revive the festive night.
"I remember thinking what a shame that we let this thing die," said Cooper. "This had been going on for more than 50 years, and there was nothing else like it around here."
The MAAC board of directors, in addition to Cooper and Coman, includes former Reynolds High football coach Bobby Poss, local TV sports anchor Stan Pamfilis, WNC Sports Hall of Fame member Ann Brandis, retired Dr. David Cappiello, Asheville Buncombe Regional Sports Commission executive director Ben VanCamp, former Asheville businessman Al Whitesides, longtime MAAC member Keith Roden and local sportswriter Keith Jarrett.
"I think the banquet is an important thread to connect the sports community to its past and present," said Pamfilis, who works at WLOS. "You see the hall inductees alongside the high school athletes, who get to see and hear what it takes to reach that level.
"And Billy deserves a lot of credit for making sure this tradition is revived and continues."
Southeastern Sports signed on as a $5,000 title sponsor for the 2014 event and more than a dozen individuals and businesses made $1,000 donations to have trophies and/or scholarships given out in their names.
The family of Joe Eblen, a longtime referee who also founded Eblen Charities and was a member of the WNC hall who died in 2013, made a $2,000 donation to sponsor an award and a scholarship.
"Sports was such an important part of my dad's life, and my mother (Bobbie) and I thought it would be a great honor to him, to be part of something so important to our community," said Jennie Eblen, Joe's daughter.
One of the traditions of the banquet is to have each of the four finalists for the awards stand and be recognized while their accomplishments are read to the audience.
Brad Johnson has attended the event as a high school athletic star (basketball and football at Owen High) and a 2010 hall inductee (after a 17-year career as a NFL quarterback), and he remembers the thrill of being there as both a youngster and an adult.
"My mom bought me my first dress jacket so I would look nice," Johnson recalled. "The jacket cost $100, two $50 payments, but this was a big deal."
Recreating that feeling on an annual basis for WNC athletes is the goal for the MAAC.
"There is so much energy and enthusiasm at the banquet," Cooper said. "The kids are all dressed up, the parents are so proud. And I love the look of joy on their faces when they win. That's why we do this.”