The 2009 NMASA Annual Awards Banquet became a trip down memory lane, as members of the sports community recalled the awardees' achievements in the past year and beyond.

Tennis' Jeff Race remembered having a little idea of what his and his family's life would be like when he came to Saipan 22 years ago, while Frank Castro looked back when he used a club made from a tree to play golf in the late '60s.

Race and Castro were enshrined to the 2009 class of the CNMI Hall of Fame for their contributions in their respective sports.

Race is a player, coach, and administrator of tennis. He represented the CNMI to various off-island tournaments, either as a player or a coach. His biggest achievement as a mentor was when he was chosen as Fed Cup and Davis Cup captain for the Pacific Oceania Team. His latest feat is helping CNMI junior player Ji Hoon Heo gain the No. 1 ranking in Pacific Oceania and become the first player from the Commonwealth to make it to the Junior ITF world rankings.

“This list is getting longer, but I have to continue reading, as Jeff deserves every word from this list,” NMASA president Michael White said during the introduction of the second inductee to the CNMI Hall of Fame that night.

Race received a specially-crafted wooden trophy for making it to the elite group, which includes Bill and Jean Sakovich, Tony Rogolifoi, Mike Villlagomez, the late Irene Alpet, Tony Satur, Francisco “Tan Ko” Palacios, Kurt Barnes, Cecilia Lisua, Jose Tenorio Sablan, Ricardo Duenas, Antonio Benavente, and Jess Wabol.

“When I came to Saipan, 22 years ago, I had a little idea what was in store for me. I didn't think that my professional life was going to revolve around sports, and tennis in particular. I expected to work in urban or natural resources planning or maybe in the tourism industry,” Race said.

“But as the song goes, 'One thing leads to another,' and so it was for me. Farther and farther, faster and faster, I got pulled along, first as an athlete, then an administrator, and finally being a coach become the dominance force,” said Race, who thanked his family, NMASA, and the Tan Siu Lin Foundation for their support.

Before Race, Castro was the first to be enshrined to the Hall of Fame at the awards night. Accompanying him at the ceremony were fellow golfers Wabol, Jordon Kosam, and Tars Olopai, who looked up to Castro as their inspiration.

Kosam who nominated Castro for the prestigious award said in an earlier interview it's very encouraging to see a 72-year-old player like the Hall of Famer still fit and playing and winning in golf tournaments.

Castro started hitting puts and greens in the late '60s at the old Saipan Country Club and from an occasional golfer, he became the CNMI representative to various regional tournaments, such as the South Pacific Games, Mini SPG, and Micronesian Games. He is also a regular participant in local tournaments and had his share of victories, including the Tournament of Champions.

“I thank my family and fellow golfers for supporting me. I would like to thank NMASA and its members for voting for me,” Castro said in a short interview with Saipan Tribune after the awards night at the Seaside Hall of Saipan Grand Hotel.

Youth power   For the third straight year, NMASA's Male and Female and Male and Female Athletes of the Year awardees were in the 18-and-under age group at the time of their 2009 achievements.

Ji Hoon Heo, who just turned 18 this month, took the 2009 Male Athlete of the Year award this time after securing the Male Student plum in 2006 and 2007.

Yvonne Bennett, who was still 18 in 2009 when she made record feats, notched the 2009 Female Athlete of the Year award, which she also won in 2008.

Matthew Mancao is a first-timer as far as NMASA's annual awards are concerned, as he was this year's recipient of the 2009 Male Student Athlete of the Year award. Mancao was still 18 when he won in athletics meet on and off-island and also shone in triathlon events in 2009. Matthew could not make it to Tuesday night's ceremony to receive his award, as he is currently studying at the University of Guam. His brother, Michael, received the award for him.

The biggest winner among the youth awardees was athletics Jacque Wonenberg, who claimed her fifth straight Female Student Athlete of the Year award. NMASA started giving student-athletes recognition in 2004 with Bo Wang, also of athletics, as its first awardee. In the next five years, the wooden trophy had Wonenberg's name on it, following the Marianas High School student's accomplishments in on- and off-island tournaments.

Besides honoring the top athletes of 2009, NMASA also gave out the Coach of the Year Award with Elias Rangamar taking home back-to-back plums. He did not make it to the awards night due to a family emergency.

By Roselyn Monroyo Reporter, Saipan Tribune 


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