Bleill: And the Big 12 winners are ...

The News-Gazette's prep sports coordinator, Fred Kroner, for several months has led the paper's project of naming an Athlete of the Decade for each of the area's prep sports.

He has used specific criteria to select a team of athletes and the top honoree for each sport in the paper's circulation area, which includes roughly 40 high schools. My responsibilities at the paper include covering Champaign-Urbana's Big 12 Conference schools in the spring and fall sports, which obviously is a smaller pool of candidates than what Fred must consider. My criterion is simple: Who was the best athlete that I witnessed in each sport?

So, here are my Athletes of the Decade in the primary spring and fall sports that I cover, using only those participants from Centennial, Champaign Central and Urbana:

Football: Morris Virgil, Urbana. The most electrifying offensive player I've covered in 24 years in this business. Had the potential to score every time he touched the ball.

Boys' soccer: Jacob Bushue, Centennial. Tough call, given how much talent C-U has produced in this decade. Centennial's Nic Wedig and Jonathan Hinds are among the worthy candidates.

Boys' golf: Clayton Parkhill, Champaign Central. Centennial's Joe Smith was consistently good, but Parkhill on his best day was brilliant.

Girls' golf: Jenna Dombroski, Centennial. Very tough call among a long line of standout Chargers, including Ainsley Wellinghoff, Stephanie Mayotte and Anne Gorman.

Girls' tennis: Natalie Tabb, Central; Katarina Marjanovic, Urbana. Yes, I'm chickening out, picking both. I just can't find a reason to split them. Both were outstanding throughout their careers.

Girls' swimming and diving: Payton Johnson, Centennial. C-U has produced an immense amount of talent in the sport, but Johnson's three state titles in the butterfly put her at a level few are capable of reaching.

Boys' cross-country: Ryan Root, Centennial. And, just for good measure, he was a good quote, too.

Girls' cross-country: Brandy Buss, Centennial. Unlike swimming, this isn't one of C-U's best sports, but Buss was a consistent performer who could make other Big 12 runners work awfully hard to beat her.

Baseball: Alex Acheson, Champaign Central. Two-time Area Player of the Year gets the nod over former teammate Eric Wilson and Centennial catcher Jacob Gray. Wilson was terrifically talented but had to battle injuries.

Girls' soccer: Ella Masar, Urbana. Ignore what she's done after high school. At Urbana, Masar was a brilliantly skilled, dominating player. If not for injuries, her legacy would be even greater.

Boys' track and field: Jeremy Kruidenier, Central; Mykhail Chambers, Urbana. Again, too close to split. Loved watching both compete, and always with the anticipation that at any moment you would witness something special.

Girls' track and field: Jordan Harris, Centennial. State runner-up in the discus, and she owns the best performance (150-7) in area history. Hard to argue with that.

Boys' tennis: Micah LeMoine, Urbana. Now at Illinois State, he starred for the Tigers briefly before playing in Oklahoma. Used to battle current Illini Dennis Nevolo in age-group events.

Tony Bleill is a News-Gazette staff writer. Contact him at 217-351-5605 or at tbleill@news-gazette.com.

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