Several student-athletes from Watauga, Ashe and Avery high schools were honored June 2 in the Best of Preps ceremony presented by Mountain Times Publications at Watauga High School’s auditorium.
Student-athletes representing 23 sports were judged on athletic and academic achievement, service to the community and overcoming adversity in their lives and athletic careers.
Extra awards were given to those who the three anonymous judges felt went above the rest of the crowd. Watauga’s Ben Critcher was named the Men’s Athlete of the Year, while Ashe County’s Samantha Woods was named the Women’s Athlete of the Year.
Avery’s Ellie Kitchin was given the Comeback Award and Avery’s Faith Daniels was given the Community Excellence Award.
Watauga’s football coach Ryan Habich was given the Extra Mile Coach of the Year Award.
The keynote speaker was former Ashe County High and Watauga High athletic director and boys’ basketball coach Marc Payne. Payne told the audience of student-athletes to let their actions speak louder than their words.
“Under promise and over deliver,” Payne said. “Don’t talk about what you’re going to do. Prove what you’re going to do in how you play.”
Critcher has done his share of delivering both in competition and in the classroom. He was the Best of Preps winner in men’s golf and in men’s wrestling. Critcher, who carried a 4.33 weighted grade point average, was an All-Northwestern Conference wrestler and an All-NWC football player.
Academically, Critcher is a nominee for the Roan Scholars Leadership Program. He also is a member of Athletes for Good Club and is part of the Howards Creek Church small group and youth groups.
“I really didn’t expect to win all of these awards,” Critcher said. “It’s great to know all the hard work and dedication I put into it paid off and it’s got benefits.”
Critcher’s golf coach Brett Green said Critcher has shown dedication to not just golf, but to his academics and his other sports.
“Ben has been a member of the WHS varsity golf team for four years,” Green said in Critcher’s nomination form. “He has played in a match each year, including all of them his senior year. He was a medalist in the non-conference match with Ashe, shooting a plus-4 at Mountain Aire Golf Club. Ben was also elected a captain by his teammates his senior year.”
Critcher said the wrestling award was a surprise since the other two nominations — Ashe County’s Zachariah Bare and Avery’s River Griffin because each won a state championship.
Critcher was also a standout football player, but the Watauga Best of Preps nomination went to Eli Suggs and the Best of Preps football winner was Ashe County’s Sam McCollum.
Critcher said he will attend Appalachian State in the fall and has not decided a major yet.
Habich was named coach of the year after leading Watauga to a 13-1 overall record and the Pioneers’ first NWC championship since 2007, which it shared the title with AC Reynolds. Watauga also won its first outright NWC championship in 2018 for the first time since 1980.
“It was a great year,” Habich said “We had a great senior class with a very talented junior class. It all came together. Five years prior, we’ve had some really good seasons and we built on every year. Last year, it all came together.”
Woods is a four-year winner in women’s basketball. She is a 1,000-point scorer, a four-year All-Mountain Valley Conference basketball player and a three-year all-conference soccer player.
“It’s awesome,” Woods said. “It’s good to see the hard work pay off. You can see it in the season when you win games, but in a ceremony like this it really sinks in.”
Daniels, who played women’s basketball, women’s soccer and volleyball, carried a weighted 4.464 grade point average. She averaged 9.4 and 5.5 rebounds for Avery’s 21-7 girls’ basketball team that made it to the fourth round of the state 1-A playoffs.
Daniels was also the co-president of the Beta Club and the President of the Future Leaders of America. She was a junior marshal at the Avery graduation and has also trained in CPR and has served as a camp counselor at the Williams YMCA.
Kitchin earned the Comeback Award for helping keep her family going since her sophomore year when her mother was diagnosed with cancer. She is the eldest kid in her family and had to be strong for her sisters and father.
Kitchin was the captain of the Avery women’s tennis team her junior and senior seasons. She has also been on the Avery’s track and field team her sophomore year and on the Vikings’ women’s soccer team her senior year.
Despite being busy, Kitchin carried a 4.6 weighted GPA. She is a member of the National Technical Honor Society and was a junior marshal for Avery’s graduation in 2019.