Covering prep athletics over the course of a school year offers ample opportunities to evalute the athletes on the field. And, typically, each team in each sport will field at least one player who stands out among the rest.
Those "stars" often rise above in one of three ways.
There are the "natural athletes" who stand out on sheer athletic ability alone, possessing the kind of raw talent that easily sets them apart.
There are also "gym rat" sort, who develop through dedication and get the absolute most out of their abilities by working harder than anyone else.
And then there is the rare combination of the two.
After watching Courtney Ceo, Katie Mathis and Broughan Jantz take the field in western Nevada County over the past four years, there's not much question that they belong in that third classification. They had the opportunity to perform due to their talent, but it was through their clear commitment to win that they helped lead their respective teams to Sac-Joaquin Section championships in their senior seasons.
For that reason, they are The Union's 2009-10 Prep Athletes of the Year.
Although the up-and-coming Lady Bruins will plan to prove us wrong, the level of success Bear River softball saw during the Ceo and Mathis era will likely not be seen again.
Since stepping onto the field as starters in their freshman season, Ceo and Mathis led the Lady Bruin program to 108 wins (against 15 losses), three Pioneer Valley League titles and four consecutive Division IV section championship banners.
"They're just so competitive," Bear River coach Duane Zauner said of his dynamic duo, moments after they'd wrapped up their career with another section crown. "They really know how to play the game. And they love to play the game. It's just going to be so hard next February, stepping onto the field and not having Courtney at shortstop and Katie at second. It's just going to be hard."
Together, they combined for 268 runs in four years, while driving in another 160 RBIs. Ceo, who also earned The Union's Athlete of Year award in 2008-09, carried a .465 career batting average, including a .578 mark in her junior season, while Mathis is a .401-career hitter after posting a .468 mark this spring.
But it didn't happen overnight.
Sure, they both had the speed to set the table for Bear River's offense, batting in the one-two spot in the lineup for much of their careers. The fact they were so naturally fleet on their feet put pressure on opponents by simply putting the ball in play, beating out an infield single and then stealing bases to get into scoring position.
It was through their year-round commitment to their craft that they became such sharp-eyed hitters (striking out a combined 14 times in a total 376 appearances at the plate over the past two seasons) and sure-handed fielders (Mathis managed a .954 career fielding percentage, while Ceo's career mark is just behind at .920).
"It's an honor (to be named The Union's athletes of the year)," Mathis said this week, upon learning of her selection. "It's nice to see softball get recognized, too.
"I like that Courtney and I received the award together. I feel like we've been through so much together, through our journey together, that I wouldn't have it any other way. I'm glad to share that honor with her."
Though they won't be taking to the field together, both Ceo and Mathis will continue their careers at the college level. Mathis will play at San Diego State, where she plans to study anthropology while hoping to help the Aztecs to championships on the field. Ceo has accepted a scholarship to play for the University of Oregon, where the Ducks no doubt will benefit from both her quick first step out of the batter's box and her rifle-like right arm.
"They're just amazing," Zauner said. "What they've brought to our community and the people who follow Bear River softball is immeasurable."
Since he first stepped onto the varsity football field, Broughan Jantz has display the kind of determination that can only lead to eventual success.
The oft-repeated story depicts a scrawny sophomore southpaw signal-caller thrown into the fray weeks after his big brother Steele - the expected star quarterback that season - had just suffered a season-ending injury.
But as he struggled through a 4-6 season, one of the toughest runs Nevada Union fans have witnessed, Jantz just kept getting back up and dusting himself off despite each defeat.
"He just seemed to have a remarkable ability to focus on the job at hand. And, of course, you could tell he had tremendous athletic ability," NU coach Dave Humphers said prior to the 2009 season. "I wasn't worried whether he could handle the pressure, because he honestly likes pressure ... he seems to like, and actually thrive, under pressure."
One could see it in his eyes after each sack: what doesn't kill him, is only going to make him stronger. It was only a matter of time until he was going to come out on top.
Two years removed from his first night under the lights at Hooper Stadium, Jantz led Nevada Union to a 13-1 record and its fourth Division I Sac-Joaquin Section championship in his senior campaign.
And the young man's focus was so sharp, he was darn near flawless all season long.
"I would put his stats up against any quarterback," said NU coach Dave Humphers, after Jantz led the Miners to the title at University of the Pacific in Stockton. "A 23-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 70 percent completion percentage (with 2,024 passing yards). But that's just a small part of who the young man is. He is a winner.
"His work ethic and also his confidence is incredible. They say the great ones make their teammates and everyone around them better. And Broughan does."
As good as he was on the football field, it was through baseball that Jantz was recently drafted by a professional sports organization. The .372 hitter as a Nevada Union center fielder was selected by the Houston Astros in the 29th round with the 873rd pick of the 2010 Major League Baseball Draft. But, after playing summer ball for a team in the Bay Area, Jantz has decided to follow in his brother Steele's footsteps in playing football for City College of San Francisco.
And though he hopes to eventually land the starting quarterback job, he's not exactly casting aside a potential career in baseball.
"I'm still going to do both," he said. "I've always known that I'll have to make a decision between the two, but I'll play both in college.
Eventually, I'll have to decide on one, but I'm going to play both this (coming) year and prolong that decision."
As to what he accomplished in high school, including earning The Union's Athlete of the Year award, Jantz said he's proud of his prep career but never set out to collect any individual accolades.
"I give all the praise and glory to God," he said, after learning of the award this week. "I'm just really grateful. I'm just thankful for it.
"I just try to work hard every day, set a good example and be a good leader. That's all I do, try to be focused and lead by example."
Contact Sports Editor Brian Hamilton via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 477-4240.