Naomi DuPree

Former Champaign Central girls’ soccer player Naomi DuPree, center, celebrates Thursday afternoon at Franklin Field in Champaign after signing to compete with Parkland College women’s soccer. Left is Champaign Central girls’ soccer coach Steve Whiteley, and right is DuPree’s father, Matthew Meyer.

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CHAMPAIGN — Abigail Burnett already left her mark on the volleyball court at Parkland the last two seasons.

The 2018 St. Joseph-Ogden graduate was a key cog in the Cobras posting a combined 113-6 record that featured two NJCAA Division II national runner-up finishes.

But on Thursday, the 6-foot-1 outside hitter earned an accolade that will make sure her time at Parkland is known for years to come.

Burnett won the Lea Plarski Award, an honor given annually to the NJCAA student-athlete who best exemplifies sportsmanship, leadership, community service, academic excellence and athletic ability. She is the first Parkland athlete to ever win the award, which has been handed out every year since 1995.

“It really encompasses the balance between attributes that don’t just stop on the court or in the classroom,” Parkland coach Cliff Hastings said. “Our team has always looked to you in those ways, of course, but it’s the embodiment of who you are as a person and day-to-day life that motivates all of us to be better coaches and teammates. You represent the kind of young women I hope my daughters emulate and they want to grow up to be like in the future.”

Burnett shined during her sophomore season last fall with the Cobras, registering 443 kills and 124 blocks en route to NJCAA D-II First Team All-American honors. But her work with community service projects — she was a vital part in helping facilitate volleyball practices and scrimmages with the Champaign-Urbana Special Recreation program that is designed for residents of all ages with disabilities — and her work in the classroom — she maintained a 3.5 cumulative GPA — are what set her up for Thursday’s honor.

Along with forming a special connection with teammate RaeAnne Allen. Allen, a 6-4 freshman outside hitter last season for the Cobras and a 2019 DeLand-Weldon graduate, has autism.

Allen credited Burnett for making her first season playing college volleyball and adjusting to life at Parkland a smooth process.

“Abi means so much to me because she was a leader I needed my freshman year to teach me how to block and play defense,” Allen said. “More importantly, she taught me how to balance my high expectations for myself while being patient with learning. I could always ask Abi questions, and she was always kind to me. She worked so hard on her own, but she always took the time to help me be the best I could be.”

Burnett, though, credited Allen for showing her a new outlook on life.

“I had the joy of playing the same position as RaeAnne, and it was so fun,” Burnett said. “She taught me a lot, and I was just happy to be a mentor to her, but honestly, she was as much of one to me. She taught me so much about patience and how everyone has different routines. We all have a different way to go about things, and it was fun to learn things from her perspective.”

Burnett’s volleyball days with Parkland are done, but she will continue her academic career this upcoming fall semester at Parkland after being admitted into the school’s radiology program.

“I’m so thankful to have been nominated for the award in the first place,” Burnett said. “I’m just humbled knowing there are so many amazing people in the NJCAA community. Parkland, as a whole, just offered so many different things to me. I loved the community. I loved the coaches. I loved what they stood for. They brought everything together, making sure academics were a big part, along with community service, and making sure that was incorporated into their program really drew me into it.”

DuPree inks with women’s soccer team. Not even two weeks ago, Naomi DuPree was marching through the streets of Champaign as the co-organizer of an event protesting racial inequality and police brutality.

On Thursday afternoon, the 2020 Champaign Central graduate found a different way to represent the area.

DuPree signed with Parkland women’s soccer, one of the first big moves by new coach James Johnson since his May hiring away from St. Thomas More.

“It means the world,” DuPree said. “Being able to do what I love and have been doing my whole life and also bringing the social activist part of it, which is something I’ve been so passionate about, and to be able to do something for my community and now play for my community as well, I just couldn’t ask for anything better.”

DuPree was preparing to return to coach Steve Whiteley’s Maroons this spring before the COVID-19 pandemic knocked out her senior campaign.

She did not play as a Central junior in 2019 because of “a lot of personal stuff going on,” according to DuPree. On that topic, she added that “I’m glad I’m at a place now where I can still play and be a leader in my community.”

DuPree was a News-Gazette All-Area girls’ soccer first-team choice in 2018 as sophomore and 2017 as freshman. She produced team highs in goals and assists as a 10th-grader with 25 and 10, respectively, and did the same as a ninth-grader with 17 tallies and five helpers.

“My goal was to do whatever I had to my senior year to be able to play, period,” DuPree said. “So I got to that point, finally, and then the corona thing happened. And it was just like, ‘Maybe the universe doesn’t want me to play.’”

Courtesy outreach from both Johnson and Whiteley, however, DuPree landed a spot on Johnson’s first Cobras women’s soccer roster. Johnson said during Thursday’s signing event at Franklin Field in Champaign that he never looked forward to game-planning against DuPree when he was in charge at STM and she was suiting up for Central.

“I was training all winter and ready to play for spring, so I’d say I’m pretty in-shape,” DuPree said. “Just going to take a month or two to be in the fittest form I can be, to be able to be 100 percent for the season. But I’m ready.”

Bailey lands with South Carolina. Parkland athletics Hall of Famer Will Bailey this week secured an assistant-coaching position on South Carolina men’s basketball coach Frank Martin’s staff.

“I’m very excited to be joining Coach Martin’s staff here at the University of South Carolina,” Bailey said in a statement. “Coach Martin has built a great culture here and has a vision for the future of which I am proud to become a part of.”

Bailey played basketball for the Cobras during the 1993-94 season and 1994-95 season, helping the program to an NJCAA Division II national-tournament appearance as a freshman and securing first-team all-conference recognition as a sophomore.

After his eligibility expired at Parkland, Bailey went on to play at UAB. He’s since served as a graduate assistant at UAB and as an assistant coach at St. Louis, La Salle, East Tennessee State, Maine and Chicago State.