Michael H. Savage Spirit of Sport Award

In 2008, the National Federation of State High School Associations, of which the CIAC is a proud member, began its “National High School Spirit of Sport Award” program.

Darien High School’s James Burgoyne (L) receives the 2012 Michael H. Savage Spirit of Sport Award from CIAC Executive Dr. Robert Lehr

This prestigious award seeks to recognize individuals who exemplify the ideals of the positive spirit of sport that represent the core mission of education-based athletics. The award may be given in recognition of a specific act or for an activity of longer duration.

It could be awarded to an individual (or group) that:

  • has demonstrated exemplary sportsmanship and/or citizenship in playing the game as it should be played;
  • has exceeded normal expectations in assisting others within the school or community; or
  • has overcome adversity or a challenging circumstance.

Each year, the honor is conferred to eight section winners as well as one national winner. The recipient must be an individual or team from a high school that is a member of an NFHS-member athletic or activity association. The recipient could be a coach, athletic administrator, administrator, trainer, contest official, student-athlete or any others associated with the school or the school’s athletic program, or an individual(s) associated with the school’s performing arts program.

In 2010 the CIAC established its own Spirit of Sport award named in honor of former executive director Mike Savage to honor deserving individuals within the state of Connecticut. In 2012, CIAC recipient James Burgoyne of Darien went on to be honored as one of eight sectional recipients of the NFHS Spirit of Sport award establishing a proud tradition of exceptional Connecticut honorees. Since then, Grace Cummings of Daniel Hand in 2015 and Marissa Walker of Waterford in 2018 were both selected as the National recipients of the Spirit of Sport Award. In addition, Haley Lespier of Maloney in 2020, Alana Bochanis of Westbrook in 2019 and Danny Deitz of Simsbury in 2017 have all joined Burgoyne as the Section 1 selections.

Please read the stories of these outstanding recipients who embody all that the CIAC and NFHS are working to promote. And the CIAC encourages parents, fans, coaches, administrators and athletes to contact the CIAC with nominees for these tremendous honors as nominations for the award are generated through the CIAC in consultation with its member institutions.

2020 - Haley Lespier (Maloney)

Haley Lespier, a junior three-sport athlete from Maloney High School, has been chosen as the 2020 Michael H. Savage Spirit of Sport Award. She becomes the 11th recipient of this distinguished yearly award, and as Connecticut’s selection she will go forward as a nominee for the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) Section and National Spirit of Sport Award.

Lespier is a significant contributor for the girls soccer, girls basketball and girls tennis teams (along with her twin sister Abby) for Maloney. That level of success seemed very far off in 2010 when as a seven-year old, Haley was diagnosed with Cerebellar Pilocytic Astrocytoma – a form of brain cancer. She underwent a seven-hour surgery to remove a golf ball-sized tumor from the region of the brain controlling coordination and motor function. Her recovery has been remarkable and five years later she was given a clean bill of health and has thrived as an athlete and a student.

Haley has also committed to helping others; raising significant money for the neurology department at Connecticut Children’s Hospital, and working with elementary school students on athletic skill improvement through youth clinics.

The Michael H. Savage Spirit of Sport Award seeks to recognize individuals who exemplify the ideals of the positive spirit of sport that represent the core mission of education-based athletics. The award may be given in recognition of a specific act or for an activity of longer duration. CIAC chooses a recipient each year that:

has demonstrated exemplary sportsmanship and/or citizenship in playing the game as it should be played;
has exceeded normal expectations in assisting others within the school community or;
has overcome adversity or a challenging circumstance.

2019 - Alana Bochanis (Westbrook)

Westbrook High School senior multi-sport athlete Alana Bochanis has been selected as the 2019 Michael H. Savage Spirit of Sport recipient which is given by the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC).

Bochanis was born with congenital heart disease that required her first surgery when she was three months old; the first of nine surgeries she has endured in her young life. Despite the incredible physical challenges her disease presents she has been a four-year participant for the Westbrook field hockey team, played one season of basketball and indoor track & field, played three seasons on the softball team, and is planning to compete for the Westbrook girls tennis team this spring. She has also maintained an exemplary academic record, serves as Class President, and is a positive presence and leader in the Westbrook community.

As the Michael H. Savage Spirit of Sport Honoree, Bochanis is the official nominee for the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) Spirit of Sport Award from Connecticut. She would go on to be selected as the Section 1 honoree for the NFHS Spirit of Sport Award.

2018 - Marissa Walker (Waterford)

Marissa Walker, a student-athlete at Waterford High School, was honored as the 2018 national recipient of the “National High School Spirit of Sport Award,” by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) at the Opening General Session of the NFHS Annual Summer Meeting in Chicago, Ill.

The “National High School Spirit of Sport Award” was created by the NFHS to recognize those individuals who exemplify the ideals of the spirit of sport that represent the core mission of education-based athletics.

As a youngster at Quaker Hill (Connecticut) Elementary School, Walker was an exceptional athlete with natural talent who appeared to have a very bright future.

That changed forever on February 2, 2009, when the then-nine-year-old Walker was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma and had a massive tumor on her left knee that needed to be removed. To address that, she underwent 10 weeks of chemotherapy followed by “limb salvage” at University Hospital in New Jersey where doctors removed 70 percent of her femur. Despite numerous days in the hospital and an additional 18 weeks of chemotherapy, Walker remained upbeat and certain that she would continue to play the sports that she loved.

While soccer and basketball were no longer participation options for her, pitching a softball was something that she could still do. Impressively, she pitched her Waterford North Little League team to the district championship game less than two years after her diagnosis.

The expandable prosthetic joint and femur that was designed and placed in Walker’s leg had to be adjusted every two to three months as she grew – a total of 23 times. After each lengthening, weeks of grueling physical therapy followed. The prosthetic piece broke when she was in sixth grade, which necessitated another surgery to replace it. Two years later, that expandable joint broke, which resulted in yet another surgery in which the doctors placed a permanent titanium rod in its place. Despite three more surgeries during her high school career, Walker has continued her determination to return to the field.

Walker was chosen captain of the 2018 Waterford High School softball team. Despite the many surgeries and thousands of hours of physical therapy, she is expected to pitch this spring and to contribute in a very strong program and conference.

Since 2010, Waterford High School and division rival Stonington High School have joined to compete in an annual softball game known as “The Play for a Cure Game” – an event that has grown in attendance and fundraising every year. Walker has been part of that game since its beginning – from throwing out the first pitch in 2010 to being the game’s winning pitcher in 2015.

Academically, Walker has been a high honor student since middle school, earning the Rotary Student of the Year Award in 2013. She was selected to the National Honor Society as a junior, elected to Class Council all four years of high school and is the Key Club secretary. Walker plans to pursue a medical career in pediatric oncology – a career she knows all too well from observing as a patient – and now wants to help others who will deal with the same struggles that she has faced.

According to her uncle Andrew Walker, who also is the Waterford High School head softball coach, “Marissa did not want pity early on and still doesn’t. I’ve witnessed her struggle up close … the tears, the heartache, the disappointment and the frustration. Her inner strength and resilient spirit is what makes her so special … her love of competition … her love for her teammates … and her love of the game. Cancer may have taken away her ability to run like the wind as she did in third grade, but it couldn’t touch her soul, her spirit or her heart. Marissa Walker is a winner even if she never steps on the field of play again because her ‘spirit of sport’ can never be taken away; it is a permanent part of her.”
View The Day of New London profile on Marissa Walker
View the CT Sports Now profile on Marissa Walker
View the WTNH “What’s Right In Schools” profile on Marissa Walker
Read The Day of New London story on Marissa Walker being selected
Release courtesy of NFHS

2017 - Danny Deitz (Simsbury)
Danny Deitz, a student-athlete at Simsbury High School, has been selected as the 2017 Section 1 recipient of the “National High School Spirit of Sport Award” by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS).

The National High School Spirit of Sport Award was created by the NFHS to recognize those individuals who exemplify the ideals of the spirit of sport that represent the core mission of education-based athletics.

A two-sport athlete with varsity letters in both football and lacrosse, Deitz’s life changed forever at the end of his sophomore year in 2015 when he was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy. As a result, Deitz had his first open-heart surgery that summer, was put on the national transplant list, and went into liver failure. Following two months in the hospital, Deitz had planned to return to school part-time while waiting for a new heart, and on September 11, 2015, he received his new heart. Over the next two months, Deitz worked in recovery building up his immune system and his physical strength. Throughout his journey Deitz helped raise money for the “The Danny Strong Fund,” which had raised more than $125,000 for cardiomyopathy research at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Since returning to Simsbury High School, Deitz has worked tirelessly to get caught up on his academics. In addition, he does volunteer work and public speaking engagements for The American Heart Association, Donate Life and the American Heart Association regarding cardiomyopathy.

In fall 2016, Deitz was cleared to return to the football field, and returned to varsity competition by midseason. He went on the play several games by year’s end, and appropriately cemented his return by catching a touchdown pass on November 4, 2016.

Through his hard work and dedication, Deitz has become an inspirational role model to many as he has demonstrated that anything is possible through hard work and dedication.

Deitz will be recognized with this honor at the 2017 CAS-CIAC Scholar Athlete Banquet on Sunday, May 7.

Check out more coverage of Danny’s incredible story:

2016 - Grace Wohlberg (Darien)
Darien’s Grace Wohlberg was an unlikely high school athlete. But achieving things that seemed unlikely was a staple of her life.

At the age of 10 following a series of severe seizures, she was diagnosed with Rasmussen’s encephalitis, an extremely rare neurological disease that wreaks havoc to one hemisphere of the brain until half of the body is rendered useless. The only known cure is to remove the effected hemisphere in a radical surgery. Grace’s hemisphrectomy, the only known “cure” for Rasmussen’s encephalitis, was performed in February 2009, just eight months after her first seizure. There is no known cure for the disease and anti-seizure medications only slow the progression; they do not halt it. The hemisphrectomies are the only options for stopping the seizures.

Even with the surgery Grace still suffered limitations and required intensive physical and occupational therapy to relearn the skills she had prior to the surgery. Despite struggling in many areas she found a home as a four-year member of the Darien swimming team. She wasn’t an all-state competitor or state champion, but was an inspiring part of the team. She competed and remained a valuable part of the team throughout her career.

Grace also served as an inspiration for significant fundraising efforts in an effort to support those with RE and develop better treatments. That included several efforts from fellow students to support her cause.
Information from the Darien Times was used in this writeup.

2015 - Grace Cummings (Daniel Hand)

Grace Cummings, a student-athlete at Daniel Hand High School, was honored as the 2015 national recipient of the “National High School Spirit of Sport Award” by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) at the Opening General Session of the NFHS Annual Summer Meeting in New Orleans, La.

The “National High School Spirit of Sport Award” was created by the NFHS to recognize those individuals who exemplify the ideals of the spirit of sport that represent the core mission of education-based athletics.

Described as being fearless, tenacious, self-sufficient and self-motivated, Cummings is a highly accomplished three-sport student-athlete who plays field hockey in the fall, ice hockey in the winter, and tennis in the spring.

On the performing arts side, Cummings has been a member of the percussion section in both the school’s marching band and concert band, and she has also been a member of the flag squad.

Cummings has been equally exemplary in the classroom, where as a high honor student she has maintained a glittering 3.98 grade-point average while taking all honor or advanced-placement college-level classes.

While those accomplishments are amazing in and of themselves, they are made even more remarkable by the fact that since a very young age Cummings has been challenged by serious health issues related to her liver.

At birth in 1997, Cummings had a choledochal cyst in the biliary tract of her liver, and just days later, she had extensive surgery to remove it. She was healthy until age two, when she developed her first episode of cholangitis – a bacterial infection in her liver that required her to be hospitalized two weeks on antibiotics.

Cummings had additional episodes in 2010 and 2011 that also required hospitalization on antibiotics. She had to have a PICC line inserted, which remained for many months. Cummings subsequently was diagnosed with Sclerosing Cholangitis, showed evidence of portal hypertension and cirrhosis – all of which put her on a list for a liver transplant in May 2012.

With that list being ranked by the MELD (Model End State Liver Disease) scores, Cummings had a low score and her diagnosis did not mesh well with the scoring system. The doctors told her family that Cummings needed a transplant as soon as possible.

Unable to locate a cadaver liver, with the assistance of the Yale Transplant Team, the Cummings family sought a live donor. Within three months, they located such a donor – a young man who was about to become a father. The donor had to first undergo a battery of tests and the transplant took place August 14, 2012.

Although that prevented Cummings from attending school and from athletic competition for six months, she maintained both her sterling athletic and academic regimens and has now returned to full capacity.

After being cleared to return to physical activities, Cummings again played her three sports, where she additionally served as captain of both the ice hockey and tennis teams.

On the academic side, she received national commendation for her high scores on the PSATs, and did extremely well on her SAT test, where she scored a perfect 800 in math and in the 700s for reading and writing.

In addition, Cummings will graduate on time and at the top of her class. With a particular interest in the areas of science and math, she intends to pursue those academic disciplines in college with a possible major in engineering.

Among her recognitions, Cummings received the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference Michael H. Savage Spirit of Sport Award, the Sons of the American Revolution Good Citizenship Award, and the Daniel Hand High School tennis team sportsmanship award.

In an effort to give back to others similarly afflicted and to thank those who helped nurse her back to health, Cummings has been a highly active advocate in the fight against liver disease. Among her efforts, she has been a walk ambassador and team captain for the American Liver Foundation’s (ALF) “Liver Life Walk,” for which she helped raise more than $40,000 for liver research and cures. She also received the “Quarter Century Salute “ from the ALF, and her walk team received the “Top Teen Team” from the foundation in 2009.

Although never one to complain – and while her new liver is exceptional – Cummings must remain vigilant in staying healthy and will be taking many medications for anti-rejection for the rest of her life. (Release courtesy of NFHS)
Read the Hartford Courant story on Grace
View the WFSB Channel 3 profile of Grace

2014 - Tyler Mauriello (Branford)
Branford swimmer Tyler Mauriello is a senior at Branford High School who has amazed his school community with his positive attitude, work ethic, leadership, and setting an outstanding example for the rest of the student body. Most inspiring is the way he goes about his business everyday.

Tyler was born with only one leg and had several surgeries at a very young age. He was fitted with a prosthetic leg when he was very young that allowed him to be mobile by using crutches. At the age of six he was fitted with a prosthetic leg that could bend and became involved in swimming as it did not involve running. He has been swimming competitively since the age of nine. Over time he also became involved in recreational basketball and little league baseball.

He is a varsity swimmer at Branford and also one of the most outstanding performers in the the school’s physical education program, where has been the recipient of the outstanding physical education award. He never complains, is always prepared, and does everything asked, including running the mile, playing quarterback on his flag football team and never has an excuse.

Tyler’s swim coach explains “Tyler possesses a sense of character that is seldom observed in someone his age. Tyler is a hardened individual who is not rattled when faced with a challenge. He is a leader both in and out of the water and always on the front lines completing his workouts. When others in his lane begin to break down they look over at him and push through it. when he finished a race he doesn’t break to rest, but is on the side of the pool cheering his teammates on. The team is lucky to have Tyler with them everydat, he is a reminder to never give up and cut excuses.”

His athletic director and physical education teacher adds, “I have had countless observations and never tire of watching [Tyler] set the example, strive hard everyday without comment, have fun, inspire others, and lead. Leadership is a lost art in contemporary times, and having Tyler Mauriello around any program or organization is better than any book, leadership training session, or workshop one could attend. I am looking forward to seeing the amazing things he will do with his life when he leaves Branford High School.”

2013 - Michela Veillette (Killingly)
Michela Veillette overcame a challenge her senior year she never expected. A multi-sport athlete and exception student at Killingly, she was just days away from the start of her senior year and a field hockey season she was deeply looking forward to when illness struck.

One day she was attending the first day of field hockey practice. Days later she was in critical condition in an an ICU bed battling an unknown bacterial infection. Doctors knew she was in toxic shock but could not determine the cause. She was on multiple IVs, and was on a breathing tube at one point, undergoing intense trauma and treatment over eight days in the intensive care unit. Finally the infection broke and after another two days in a lower intensive ward, Michela was released from the hospital. Now new challenges emerged.

Due to the intense trauma of her illness that left her incredibly weak, she was told she would not be able to compete in her senior field hockey season. Even returning to school would need to be a gradual process; building up by attending one class, then two, etc. But she refused to accept that as a senior captain she would not be able to participate in her final season. She worked with a physical therapist to develop a plan to get back on the field, and then slowly put in the work to make it happen. Even then she was told her best chance would be to resume competition perhaps by the last few games of the season.

Her work started slowly; all she was able to do was lift water bottles and take walks in her driveway. But those small steps grew into big ones, and after missing only two games she was back on the field for Killingly. She returned to the field on her 17th birthday on September  21, the team’s third game of the season. She scored her first goal in her second game back, and was off and running. She would go on to earn All-State recognition for the second time, and scored the game-winning goal in double-overtime as Killingly topped Old Saybrook in the opening round of the CIAC state tournament.

Throughout the ordeal, Veillette never complained, never quit, and maintained her impeccably academic standards that rank among the best in the class. She also inspired her teammates with her willingness to do whatever it took to get back on the field. For all of that, she was a worthy selection as the recipient of the Michael H. Savage Spirit of Sport Award.

2012 - James Burgoyne (Darien)
At Darien High School, James Burgoyne has been a four-year varsity golf team member, capped by being selected captain his senior year. He has placed highly in several metropolitan PGA golf tournaments during that time.

Burgoyne has been equally outstanding in the classroom, where he has maintained a 3.91 grade-point average. A member of the National Honor Society, Burgoyne takes several AP and honors courses, and he scored a 2,200 on his SAT. While embodying the ideals of exemplary athletic and academic achievement is outstanding in and of itself, what has really set Burgoyne apart from the crowd is a volunteer program that he developed as a mere sophomore.

At that time, Burgoyne wanted to do something to support America’s troops overseas and their families stateside. He became aware of the PGA’s “Birdies for the Brave” program in which sponsors donate a certain amount of money per birdie made, and he approached Darien High School golf coach Tom O’Donnell to see if there might be a way in which the golf team could become involved with it.

“I was immediately struck by two things,” O’Donnell said. “First, this is a great idea, and second, what an impressive and mature young man to show such empathy, gratitude and initiative. As a direct result of his efforts, $3,500 was raised and donated to the program on behalf of the Darien High School golf team.

“That alone would have been significant, but while communicating with the PGA Tour on the project, I discovered that Darien High School was the first high school in the country to be involved with the program. As a result of our success, the PGA Tour decided to initiate a ‘Birdies for the Brave Golf Team Pledge Program,’ and now other teams are starting to get involved. “Utilizing sports to help others is one of the most positive values of athletics and James Burgoyne has helped remind us of that. In addition, he has also reminded us that charitable work in sports in not the sole responsibility of the professional leagues and that each of us can use the love of sports to make a positive impact on the lives of others. James Burgoyne started all of this in motion, but there is no telling where it will end or how many people will be helped because one athlete used his love of sport to show his gratitude and appreciation to those who provide the safety and security he enjoys.”

2011 - Jamie Botteon (Bristol Eastern)
Botteon was a 16-year-old junior at Bristol Eastern and an All-CCC soccer goalie when she was diagnosed in 2009 with acute myeloid leukemia, the same disease that her brother Wade had lost has battle to at the age of 13 in 2002. During her brother’s 11 year fight with the disease Jamie donated bone marrow to her sibling three times.

For six months after being diagnosed Botteon underwent five cycles of chemotherapy and was in and out of Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. The treatment forced Botteon, to put her soccer career and everything else on hold as she fought both for her life and to win the battle her brother was not able to win. Fortunately for Jamie, her family, her friends and teammates Jamie won her fight and was declared cancer free in the spring of 2010.

Jamie worked hard to return to the soccer field with both her premier team and her Bristol Eastern squad. She did so and in 2011 broke the Bristol Eastern record for career shutouts by a goalkeeper. After graduating from Bristol Eastern Jamie went on to Stony Brook University in New York where she iss a member of the Seawolves soccer team.

2010 - Rachel Grusse (Glastonbury)

Photo by John Woike, Hartford Courant

The CIAC Spirit of Sport award was created to honor a student-athlete, coach or team that exemplifies positive sport values while faced with difficult challenges. The award is named in honor of Michael H. Savage, the retiring executive director of the CIAC. The 2010 recipient of the Spirit of Sport award is Rachel Shannon Grusse, a senior at Glastonbury High School. Rachel received the award from Mr. Savage at the annual scholar-athlete banquet held at the Aqua-Turf Club on May 2, 2010.

Rachel was born without a spleen and contracted a form of bacterial pneumonia that required the amputation of both of her lower legs and her fingertips when she was sixteen months old. Despite her physical limitations, Rachel began competitive swimming at the age of ten. She continued her competitive swimming pursuits while at Glastonbury High School where she was a member of the girls’ varsity swim team for four years.

While Rachel was a motivation to others, it was her dedication to her team and sport as well as her work ethic that her high school teammates most admired. Despite severe physical limitations, Rachel never asked for special considerations. Instead she practiced every day with unwavering optimism, determination and enthusiasm.

For her dedication to her sport, her loyalty to her team and a commitment unmatched by many able-bodied athletes, the first-ever Connecticut Spirit of Sport award was presented to Rachel.