Another South Jersey high school sports season has been completed and more than the championships and brilliant individual efforts, this senior class will truly be defined by its exemplary character.
Three instances quickly come to mind of youngsters that captured the essence of what it means to represent South Jersey athletics in the highest possible manner.
Few made a greater impression than Paul VI senior offensive lineman John Carty, when talking before Thanksgiving about how much it meant for him to compete in his first and final turkey day football game.
The previous two years his football seasons had been cut short due to ACL injuries to the right knee.
To go through the arduous rehabilitation, not once but twice, and then to finally return, was an unbelievable triumph for Carty, an honor student who earned all-conference honors this season while also helping Paul VI win the Burlco/Olympic Patriot Division title.
"Playing football means everything to me," he said at the time.
It provided us all with a lesson that no one should take for granted the opportunity to represent one's high school in athletic competition.
As it turned it, that wouldn't be the final time he suited up: Carty was selected to compete in the Adam Taliaferro Foundation senior all-star game June 26 at Rowan.
Then there was the story of Ocean City senior soccer player Carly DiGiovanni, who showed great courage in returning to play in the South Jersey senior all-star game after missing most of her senior year due to injury.
During her fifth game of the season, DiGiovanni suffered a lacerated liver. The all-star game was her first action back and there was natural apprehension.
"I was a little scared in the beginning," DiGiovanni said afterward. "But once I got running around, it was great to be back."
Two different emotions surfaced, first the fear, then the joy of returning to the field.
As fate would have it, DiGiovanni, normally a defender, played forward in the all-star game at Kingsway, scored two goals and was named MVP of the game.
The MVP was named a few days after the game, and the joy and pride she had in earning that award was truly special.
And finally, no greater example of grace and leadership under adverse conditions was demonstrated by Collingswood's Tyrone Mann-Barnes, an Inquirer first-team all-South Jersey basketball player.
His final high school game was among the most thrilling, but from his point of view, the most devastating.
Collingswood was one step away from an appearance in the state final and had overcome a nine-point deficit early in the fourth quarter to take a 61-59 lead against Shabazz in the state Group 2 semifinal at Perth Amboy.
Mann-Barnes had put the team on his back, scoring 32 points, rising above exhaustion to make one big play after another. The apparent ride to the state final was derailed when Shabazz's Michael Reid drilled a three-pointer from the top of the key at the buzzer to earn a 62-61 victory. A truly cut-your-heart-out shot.
The Collingswood players were inconsolable, and understandably so, but there was Mann-Barnes, going up to each teammate, telling them to keep their heads up, that they were representing their school and had nothing to be ashamed of.
In essence, he was providing leadership, even after his career was officially over. He then spoke so eloquently when many others were left speechless.
"We fought so hard and you can't ask for any more," he said afterward. "We lost but we gave it all we had. And I'm so proud of everybody."
Could a person in the NBA handle such a devastating defeat any better?
These are three examples of the type of senior athletes we saw all season in South Jersey. Every school can cite examples of youngsters who represented their schools so brilliantly, courageously and willingly.
And while we enjoyed the great athletic ability we witnessed throughout the year, the aforementioned athletes and many others showed us that there is much more we get out of watching these youngsters than just the outcome of the games.
Congratulations go out to all senior athletes who proved to be great ambassadors for South Jersey high school sports.
Countless times we saw the heart, class and courage of the seniors, and that is why it was once again a privilege to watch yet another group of special athletes grow right before our very eyes.