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Chesterton High School honors Athletic Hall of Fame recipients - 8/23

Article by Tom Keegan

CHS Hall of Fame Recipients

Left to right, the Chesterton Athletics Hall of Fame Class of 2023, Kevin Kinel, Sarah (Kehe) Caudill, Drew Hopson (accepting for mother, LouAnn Hopson), Kelly Grassel, Matt Nover, Garry Nallenweg, Lauren (West) Poncsak, Fred Mitchell, Kyle Whitaker, Lisa Whitaker, Talor (Whitaker) Bassett, Steve Whitaker. Not pictured: Blake Pieroni, Aaron and Ethan Whitaker. TOBY GENTRY/photo

HoF banquet rich with memories, laughs and tears

Those in attendance seemed to agree that the banquet to honor the Chesterton Athletics Hall of Fame Class of 2023 on Saturday, Aug. 26, went swimmingly well. Remarks of gratitude from the inductees, reported here in the order that they spoke, ranged from humorous to poignant.

A sampling:

Sarah (Kehe) Caudill, who won 20 state medals in cross country, swimming and track combined, including five first-place ones, reflected on covering “thousands of miles over the ground and in the pool, and many of them have long since blended together.”

Still, she was able to share one memory that stands out from each sport, including, “battling 40 mph headwinds down an unforgiving 800-meter finishing stretch at the LaVern Gibson Cross Country Course at the state meet my junior year. I was hardly moving, but I was passing people like they were standing still and was able to push my way all the way to fourth place.”

 

Kelly Grassel winner of the 2011 and 2012 state golf championships, finished her show of gratitude with, “I would like to thank God for giving me the ability to play golf and for the game of golf and most of all for teaching me that my identity does not lie in my ability to shoot a golf score, but in His love for me as his creation and his child. I surely loved being a part of the CHS athletic program and it’s an honor to be able to compete among many other talented athletes.”

Drew Hopson accepted the honor for his late mother, LouAnn Hopson, Chesterton’s only coach for the first 35 years of the softball program and a physical education teacher at the high school. Drew almost made it a full minute before having to gather himself and then continuing.

“I absolutely hate being up here on this stage, but it’s not because I hate public speaking. It’s not because as many coaches in this room know I have no athletic talent. It’s because my mom deserves to be here,” Drew said of his mother, who died from cancer.

The moved crowd gave him a loud and long ovation.

A letter from three-time Olympic gold medalist Blake Pieroni was read as part of the introduction for his high school coach, Kevin Kinel. Pieroni came up from Bloomington for the halftime ceremony at the football game the previous night, but was attending a close friend’s wedding and was unable to attend the dinner. His letter described Kinel as a coach who was “positive, encouraging, dedicated” and had “a deep belief that we were all capable of great things.”

 

Talor (Whitaker) Bassett then came to the microphone to introduce Kinel.

“I never felt undervalued. I never felt overvalued. He fed the talent. He didn’t feed the ego,” Bassett said and then turned toward Kinel’s table. “Thank you for being a coach who made me feel valued, safe, secure, respected. That goes a long way, longer than anything that the record books are going to show.”

Kinel opened with a reference to the miles and miles of workouts he had his swimmers do.

 

“I don’t know how they have good memories after some of the stuff I put them through, to be honest with you,” Kinel said. He told a story of one of the many times he learned from his swimmers.

“Swimming is incredibly grueling. We have double practices. We have long hours and early hours, as Talor said and Blake said,” Kinel said. “One real tough part of the season is during Christmas break. It’s kind of our last time to really get some good training in before we start to rest for the end of the season. During Christmas break, we went typically two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon session.”

One morning during the break, his car was getting serviced and his wife, Barbrara, dropped him off for the practice. Nobody had come to the pool by starting time for the workout.

“Then it dawns on me that the old white Jeep was not in the parking lot, so maybe the kids think I’m not here,” Kinel said.

Left: Kevin Kinel shares that he did more than teach his swimmers, he learned from them too as he watched them having a snowball fight in the high school parking lot. Center: The leadoff hitter among speakers, Sarah (Kehe) Caudill spends the rest of the night enjoying her fellow inductees’ speeches. Right: Who better to introduce the Whitaker family than their former babysitter, Jenni (Anderson) Kellstrom?

So, he headed toward the door and looked out the window to the parking lot to see if his swimmers were waiting in their cars.

“They were out there having a huge snowball fight. They’re pelting each other and they’re just having so much fun,” Kinel said. “It dawned on me later: I think they were in better mental shape the rest of that week and the rest of the season because they were allowed to be kids and they had fun. That taught me the lesson that I’m going to burn them out if I don’t sometimes let them be kids, and let them have fun, and not freak out.”

Before he grew emotional and welled with tears talking about the friends he has made in the athletic department, Fred Mitchell, 83, had the walls shaking with laughter.

First, he feigned fear of public speaking, of which he has none, by opening his acceptance speech with, “I’d rather have a colonoscopy right now than do this.”

Then he feigned age-related confusion, again of which he has none, to set up a joke. He said that he was out of sorts when he arrived at the banquet hall in Portage and sought help from old friend, assistant athletic director Tommy Berry.

The conversation that Mitchell manufactured for the crowd:

Mitchell: “Tommy, something’s wrong. Something’s in my ear and I can’t figure out what it is. Can you look at it?”

Berry: “Oh, man.”

Mitchell: “What?”

Berry: “Well, you want the good news or the bad news?”

Mitchell: “The good news.”

Berry: “Well, it’s a suppository.”

Mitchell: “If that’s the good news, what’s the bad news?”

Berry: “Well, I know where your hearing aid is now.”

Fortunately, Mitchell didn’t drop the mic and walk away at that point. Instead, he gripped the audience with stories and heartfelt gratitude.

Retired athletic director Garry Nallenweg bemoaned having to follow to the microphone, “the king of comedy,” meaning Mitchell, and his son Bryan, who gave his father a touching introduction punctuated by a big hug.

During his speech, Nallenweg the father said, “I truly believe that we assembled the best coaching staff in the state of Indiana. I want to thank every single one I remain in association with. Their dedication to the student-athletes and to the athletic programs at the high school was second to none.”

After leading Chesterton to a sectional basketball title and setting the school record with a 6-10 high jump, Matt Nover started 91 of the 129 games he played at Indiana for Bob Knight, was recommended by Knight for the role of Ricky Roe in “Blue Chips,” co-starring with Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway and Nick Nolte, and played professionally for 12 seasons overseas and heads the sales department of a medical device company.

“Here’s why I think I was able to be as successful as I was,” Nover said. “It was because of the nurturing, the coaching, the support from Fred Mitchell, from Garry Nallenweg, from (physical education teacher) Coach Hopson, who I saw every day. Coach Kinel, I took swimming lessons, I don’t know if you remember. … When I broke my ankle I had to come to the pool every day to stay in shape. Coach was always very kind. Very welcoming, very mild-speaking, I would say, but I knew when it was time to go, so you still had that discipline.”

Former Chesterton athletic director Garry Nallenweg receives his Hall of Fame plaque from his successor, Jeff Hamstra. 

Addressing the other athletes inducted, Nover said, “I’m sure you guys probably feel the same, (that the success they enjoyed) is because of the nurturing you got and support you got every day at Chesterton High School. I never felt like I couldn’t do something, I never felt like I didn’t have the opportunity to succeed. I always had the support.”

After thanking her high school coaches, Maria and Mike Bachuchin, gymnast Lauren (West) Poncsak recognized teammates for making “every practice and competition” and “every sleepover and bus trip” a “cherished memory.”

Three-time Olympic gold medalist Blake Pieroni acknowledges applause at a halftime ceremony to introduce Hall of Fame class during Chesterton’s football game vs. Warsaw. Attending the wedding of a close friend Saturday night, Pieroni missed the banquet, but took the time to drive up from Bloomington for the halftime recognition. His letter about swim coach Kevin Kinel was read at the banquet as part of introducing Kinel. 

 

The Whitaker family, parents Steve and Lisa, children Talor (six state medals), Kyle (12), Aaron (eight) and Ethan (two) were the last to receive their plaques. Marines Aaron and Ethan could not make the dinner because of their professional obligations.

Kyle, the only high school swimmer in Indiana history to win the maximum eight individual state titles before an All-American career at Michigan, counted Kinel, his former assistant Pat Ward, Duneland Swim Club coach Jim Voss, and former babysitter and role model Jenni (Anderson) Kellstrom among the many he thanked. He didn’t choke up until thanking his parents for “everything that they allowed me to do, travel the world. There are not enough thank yous for them.”

Lisa said that Steve and her motivation for putting their children in swim lessons was not because their parents swam in college, but for safety reasons because they owned a boat.

“That all changed when we had a babysitter named Jenni Anderson, who introduced us to the Duneland Swim Club, and a year later we sold the boat,” Lisa said. “We no longer had time to go boating because we were at a swimming pool watching a swimming meet.”

Lisa also revealed, maybe only partially joking, that when the family moved from Central Indiana for Steve’s new job, the Whitakers had multiple options for where to set up roots and said that Steve’s love of the maroon-and-gold-clad Washington Redskins (now Commanders) led them to choose Chesterton because the Trojans had the same colors.

At that moment, it was easy to think back to Kinel thanking the community for the prayers said for him after his serious automobile accident in May of 2022, and picturing him on his knees, saying a prayer of his own more than a decade ago: “Thank you, God, for making Steve Whitaker a fan of Washington’s NFL team and not Philadelphia’s.”