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 WNC Sports Award Banquet, conducted by the Mountain Amateur Athletic Club, began in 1959.

About 200 people attended the first banquet, held in the Gold Room at Battery Park Hotel. The 2017 banquet included 850 people.

The second banquet, also held at Battery Park, featured a heroic effort by Marlene Smith. A forward at Leicester (now Erwin) High, Smith was scheduled to attend the banquet but also had a basketball game that night.

She scored 36 points in the first three quarters before coach Bill Williams let her leave the game early to get dressed and attend the banquet.

The banquet was held at various sites in its formative years – City Auditorium in Asheville, Mars Hill, Asheville-Biltmore College and the Asheville Civic Center before settling into his present home for more than 30 years, the Omni Grove Park Inn.

The banquet was the brainchild of Nancy Merki Boland, a local swimming coach who felt that a WNC-wide banquet was needed to honor local athletes, especially in the minor sports that often were ignored.   

City leader and former Asheville mayor Gene Ochsenreiter was the leader and driving force for the MAAC and the banquet for decades, and it is his hard work and passion that current board members continue to try and emulate every year.

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.

The 2018 event has raised $70,000 from 40 sponsors and ticket sales for 22 awards and 15 scholarships at $1,500 each. The banquet also honors a Special Olympics athlete and gives that athlete’s charter a $1,000 grant.

Held annually for six decades, the banquet 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.

Held in conjunction with the enshrinement ceremony for the WNC Sports Hall of Fame, the banquet is held annually in early May and includes dinner and the awarding of more than 20 plaques and trophies for outstanding team and individual achievement, along with scholarships.

Past guest speakers have included famous coaches such as Adolph Rupp, Roy Williams, Danny Ford, Kay Yow and Mack Brown, and popular athletes such as Bob Cousy.

While the banquet includes recognizing such great Hall of Fame figures like football standout Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice, the original intent of Ochsenreiter was always about the local high-school athletes.

One of the highlights of the evening is the presentation of the MOOG/Gene Ochsenreiter Lifetime Achievement Award, created in 2000 to honor someone like its namesake, who gave so much time and energy for the banquet and his community before his death 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 emeritus 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 has averaged more than 750 in attendance from 2015-17.

Having been involved with the banquet since 1992, Cooper — an Asheville businessman who played 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 current MAAC board of directors, in addition to Cooper and Coman, includes former Reynolds High football coach Bobby Poss, former Asheville High football coach Danny Wilkins, local TV sports anchor Stan Pamfilis, WNC Sports Hall of Fame member Ann Brandis, longtime MAAC member Dr. David Cappiello, former Olympian Dr. Lary Schulhof, Buncombe County commissioner Al Whitesides, longtime MAAC member Keith Roden, local iHeart Radio executive Brian Hall 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. "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."

Ingles Markets has been the presenting sponsor since 2017; Dixon Hughes Goodman sponsors the WNC Sports Hall of Fame and Darlene and John McNabb sponsor the scholarship program.

One of the traditions of the banquet is to have each of the award finalists 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.”