Student athletes representing 31 schools and 17 sports were recognized for their efforts on the playing field Monday during the second annual All-Texomaland All Star Preps sports banquet. The event honored 320 students from across the region with a special banquet and awards for the region’s best athletes.

“These athletes represent the cream of the crop,” Texoma Marketing and Media Group Senior Group Publisher Nate Rodriquez said. “I’m constantly amazed by the quality of athletes we have here in Texoma and the number of state titles they bring home. And not only are they great athletes, they’re great kids.”

The event featured a speech by former Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, who recently announced his retirement from professional football following 15 seasons with the team. Witten ended his career as an 11-time Pro Bowler, a four-time All-Pro selection and the all-time reception and yardage leader for the Dallas Cowboys.

“I get a lot of great opportunities, but opportunities like this are special to me because these athletes are the future,” Witten said of getting to take part in the All-Texomaland banquet.

Witten spoke on his career with the Cowboys and participated in a question and answer session with the student athletes during Monday’s event. With his recent retirement, Witten said he had been thinking back on the people throughout his life who helped him, and the road he took from student to professional athlete.

“Some of my best experiences were in high school and some of my teammates are my best friends today,” Witten said to the student athletes.

Among the other topics Witten spoke about was the perseverance and dedication needed to reach the top in athletics. In his rookie year, Witten said he took a hard hit that broke his jaw. In the days following the injury, Cowboys coaching staff encouraged him to eat baby food while his injury healed to keep up his strength, due to the high calorie value, if he wanted to continue to play.

As he now transitions into his next role as the lead analyst for Monday Night Football, Witten said he will have the chance to see how teams from across the country build their roster and strategies. Despite the recent loss of Dez Bryant and himself, Witten said the Cowboys have great potential, but will be facing strong opposition in 2018.

“It is a young team, it is a tough division,” he said, noting that the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles only got stronger in the draft. “Dallas is young, but there is a lot of potential.”

Monday’s event highlighted the accomplishments of area athletes throughout the past year, which included state championships in softball, girls track and boys golf, among other athletic achievements. These awards include recognition for athletes in cross country, volleyball, 4A/5A football,2A/3A football, swimming and diving, wrestling, basketball, tennis, golf, track and field, baseball, softball and soccer.

“This event is a chance to make the night special for these student-athletes and to celebrate their hard work and sacrifice, as well as that of their coaches and family,” Rodriguez said.

Among the students who were recognized Monday was football and baseball player Hunter Hawthorne of Bells, who was awarded the male athlete of the year award. For his part, Hawthorne said it took a lot of work, practice and exercise to get where he is today.

“You have to work every day,” he said. “There is a reason why some are here tonight and some are not and that reason is work ethic.”

For Shelby Gerner of Blue Ridge, who was recognized as female athlete of the year, an average week includes between 15 and 20 hours of exercise and practice in volleyball, basketball and tennis. Gerner said the effort is worth it as it gives her a chance to improve and better herself.

“I know my community and teammates always count on me, so they kept me going,” she said.

While the event was focused on the student athletes, honors were also given to area coaches for their efforts and roles in helping the athletes achieve their best. Greg Nix of Pottsboro High School, who helped lead the school’s boys golf team to victory in this year’s state championship and the first baseball playoff win for the school since 2006, was named coach of the year.

“You want to surround yourself with great kids and I was exceptionally lucky this year,” he said. “You really do feel like they are your child and you are living vicariously through their successes. At the same time when they hurt, you hurt.”

In addition to the three awards for player and coach of the year, the event was capped off with the Deckard-Woodlee-Pelton Courage Award, which was presented to Pottsboro High School coach Bart Williams, who continued to attend every game and practice this year while battling cancer.

“This event would not be possible without our partner, Texoma Medical Center, and title sponsors, Classic of Texoma, Holiday Autogroup, Parkway Buick GMC, as well as the supporting sponsors and table sponsors,” Rodriguez said. “These local businesses believe in these students, the community, and this celebration.”

Other sponsors for the event included Sherman Chevrolet Cadillac, First United Bank, HearCare, Inc. & Associates, Stokes Orthodontics, Reynolds Electric, Heating & Air Conditioning Service, Sherman ISD, Spirit Ink, Dr. Jerry Gundersheimer-Eye Do Optical, Denison ISD, Best Pawn, Bells ISD, Bi-Lo Wholesale, F&I Pawn and Waldo Funeral Home.