kellie winchell minneapolis south

For most of her high school life, Minneapolis South senior Kellie Winchell would go from tennis to hockey and then to golf, routinely moving from sport to sport as easily as changing classrooms.

But unlike others who define themselves through athletics career, Winchell never saw them as a way of life. For her, they were a conduit to something else, whether as simple as friendships or as meaningful as her future. There were times when she wanted to be anywhere but the tennis court or hockey rink, but there was value in sports and she knew the payoff would come.

“It seems like every season, about two-thirds of the way through, I would feel like ‘Let’s get this over with,’ ” Winchell said. “But my parents’ philosophy was always that if you sign up for something, you have to make the best of it and finish it all the way through. Then, if you don’t want to do it again, don’t.”

Winchell admitted there were times when she almost didn’t come back.

“Hockey is the biggest time commitment,” she said. “After my sophomore year, I wasn’t going to come back. But they didn’t have a goalie. So I gave up my free time and took one for the team to be the goalie again. And I’m really glad I did.”

While practices may have been drudgery, they were a small price to pay for the lasting friendships she developed.

“It really sounds cliché, but it’s been my teammates that bring me back every year,” she said. “The pasta parties, the out-of-town trips, the little things that make it worth it. For example, our hockey team was so close that we still talk and get together [almost] three months after the end of the season.”

Winning the Athena Award for Minneapolis South is the last little bit of justification for her persistence. It’s also a nice way for her to wrap up her athletic career before heading off to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in New York to study engineering.

“This tops it all off,” she said. “After 10 years of putting all of my efforts into sports and countless play dates and family functions I couldn’t get to, this is something that makes me realize it’s all been worth it. Now it’s time to move on. I’ve got other fish to fry.”

JIM PAULSEN

tasha feigh osseo-maple grove-park center

Tasha Feigh’s considerable vision problems used to mean lots of striking out and tears during adapted softball games.

A narrowed field of vision and multiple visual cuts — imagine looking both through a paper towel tube and out a barred window — made Feigh unable to track the ball from a normal batting stance.

Turning her stance to face the pitcher transformed Feigh from easy out to automatic. She entered her senior season with a .961 batting average, a record for cognitively impaired (CI) athletes in the Osseo-Maple Grove-Park Center program.

Similar success in soccer and floor hockey, coupled with Feigh’s team-first attitude and sportsmanship, made her Osseo’s first-ever CI athlete to win an Athena Award.

Winning signified how far Feigh had come — from a seventh-grader standing at home plate with a bat in her hands and tears in her eyes, to joyful weeping with coach Kelli Waalk-Gilbertson when the award was announced.

Feigh hopes being acknowledged “gives girls the chance to prove how much sports mean to them and the school,” she said. When her challenges made her ponder quitting, Feigh decided, “I really liked the sport so I told myself to keep going.”

Feigh blossomed as an adapted athlete, earning the nickname “Bulldozer” for her aggressive style.

“It came from soccer,” Feigh said. “I used to back up from the boys, but then I figured out that to get the ball you have to go for it. So I did.”

She earned five varsity letters in soccer and floor hockey and finished her career as the program’s career assists leader in both sports. Showing no signs of slowing this spring, Feigh was a combined 8-for-8 with four doubles in the first two games. A second baseman with good range, she also turned seven unassisted double plays.

Feigh’s hitting prowess earns her respect from opposing teams. They often shift to defend her, a strategy used against the most dangerous hitters in major league baseball. But covering the third base line doesn’t always work. Feigh, an ideal leadoff hitter, is fast enough to beat the long throw to first base.

“It makes it more fun to hit and play the game instead of striking out and sitting down,” Feigh said.

DAVID LA VAQUE

shaina burns lakeville south

Shaina Burns excels in every environment, and does so with a smile.

“I make it my personal mission to help everyone smile, no matter how unpleasant they might be,” Burns said. “Being able to bring all types of people together is one of the most important factors to being a leader. No matter how well you work yourself, if no one else is willing to work together, then your goal is doomed.”

Burns emerged as a leader at Lakeville South at a young age. No matter if it was on a track, a tennis court, a basketball court or in the classroom.

“My classmates would turn to me every time to lead a project,” Burns said. “Initially, I thought it was just because I had good grades. Later on, I learned that what really propelled me into leadership roles was my ability to pull all sorts of people together and make work enjoyable.”

Burns is the state’s most versatile track and field athlete. She recently posted a high enough score in the heptathlon at the Arcadia Invitational in California to qualify for this summer’s USA junior championships (under age 20) in Sacramento. The seven-event heptathlon combines sprints, middle distance and hurdle races, and field events.

In March Burns won the pentathlon title (five events) at the New Balance indoor championships in New York. Her score was tops in the country this season, and the eighth-best all-time.

“I always struggled with what events I wanted to compete in,” Burns said. She has competed in the 100- and 300-meter hurdles, 4x400 relay, long jump and shot put at the Class 2A state meet. “My mom [Luonna] suggested I do the heptathlon and try them all.”

Burns plans to run track at her “dream school,” Texas A&M, which has won the NCAA outdoor championship three of the past five years. Burns, who got a 33 on her ACT, plans to major in biochemistry/pre-medicine.

She said she plans to keep leading “on my sports teams, in the classroom, and eventually in the hospital as a surgeon,” Burns said.

As the Cougars’ top singles tennis player the past two years, Burns is one of the school’s all-time leaders with 65 career victories.

How does the always-busy Burns do it?

“By facing everything with infallible positive energy,” she said. “I believe that understanding people, being able to casually lead with a smile rather than an iron fist and still be respected, is the most valuable skill there is.”

RON HAGGSTROM