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New Hampshire Union Leader Athletes of the Month winners, July's Lauren Thibodeau of Hampstead, left, and September's Victoria Arlen, of Exeter, attend The Leaders - A Celebration of Sports Champions event hosted at the Radisson in Manchester Sunday afternoon. (MARK BOLTON/UNION LEADER)

Union Leader sports banquet a celebration of leaders

MANCHESTER - Passionate people and their inspirational impact on New Hampshire's sporting life were recognized Sunday at the New Hampshire Union Leader's annual recognition banquet, The Leaders: A Celebration of New Hampshire Sports Champions.

"Things are done differently here in New Hampshire, and I learned to appreciate it more now that I've moved away," said Tony Johnson, one of five honored recipients of the Walter A. Smith Coaches Award. Johnson spent 17 years at Bishop Guertin of Nashua and coached the football and track and field teams to multiple championships before taking a coaching position at Worcester Academy in Massachusetts.

"You can see evidence of that right here inside this room," said Johnson.

The event and the 250 or so attendees seated inside the Radisson-Manchester function room applauded officials, coaches and volunteers who dedicated large portions of their lives supporting, mentoring and enriching the efforts of Granite State athletes. And, accomplished athletes with promising futures were also congratulated and honored.

Hanover golfer and Dartmouth College graduate Peter Williamson and Milford soccer player Morgan Andrews received the Robert A. "Red" Rolfe Male and Female Athlete of the Year Awards.

Williamson, a Division I All-America scholar, won the Ivy League individual title for the third time before graduating and winning the Southern Amateur Championship in Little Rock, Ark., and the North and South Amateur at Pinehurst, N.C. He was also one of 16 amateurs invited to a practice session for the 2013 Walker Cup.

Andrews was the 2012 Gatorade National Player of the Year and recorded two goals and two assists while serving as captain of the U.S. Under 17 women's national team during the Junior World Cup in Azerbaijan. She returned to New Hampshire in time to score 19 goals in nine games for Milford, including both scores in the team's title game triumph. She also kicked for the Spartans football team and started her own charity initiative, Kicks for Cans, supporting area food pantries.

Emotion overflowed during the presentation of two Special Recognition Awards presented to the late Dan Duval, posthumously, for his commitment to youth, and Victoria Arlen for inspiring others.

Duval, an accomplished Granite State athlete and coach, provided motivation and support to youth dealing with addictions. "He took an addictive behavior and transformed it into a life-changing behavior," said Nick Vailas, a member of the New Hampshire Union Leader Board of Judges.

Arlen swam her way to three silver medals and a gold medal - in world record time - at the 2012 Paralympics in London. A competitive swimmer since early childhood, she was left paralyzed from the waist down by a neurological disorder. The Exeter High senior endured a three-year battle, spending a prolonged period of time in a vegetative state, before being able to returning to racing in the pool.

"I tell people all the time that you can't let people tell you that something's impossible," Arlen, with four Olympic medals serving as a distinctive necklace, told a spellbound crowd. "I want to send a message of encouragement to others. We must believe and achieve."

The Leaders sports banquet celebrated all those involved in making sports dreams come true.

"High school sports is a great place," said Rick Forge, one of five recipients of the John R. Clark Officials Award, while explaining his four-decade-long relationship with athletic competition that includes officiating more than 800 varsity volleyball matches and 35 state finals.

"I spent 50 years coaching, teaching and mentoring. It meant the world to me and, I trust, made a difference to the athletes I had the privilege of working with," said Tom Walton, the Carl Lundholm Memorial Award.

Fellow coaches, officials, athletes and parents in attendance nodded their heads, relating with and agreeing to Walton's words.

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