The Rockford Public Schools 205 Athletic Department will give six awards during the Third Annual Champions Ball Feb. 21 and induct another class into the RPS 205 Hall of Fame. The Class of 2015 features former standout athletes from East, West and Guilford high schools.
“It’s always a special night,” said Mat Parker, director of athletic activities and program development. “This year, we’ll celebrate and induct the third class in the Rockford Public School Athletic Hall of Fame. These terrific student athletes include state champions, professional athletes and school record holders. It’s a great night to remember our successful past and recognize the resurgence in RPS athletics.”
The event will be at the Radisson Hotel and Conference Center. Tickets are on sale through the Rockford Sports Coalition: http://www.rockfordsportscoalition.org/.
The 2015 Rockford Public Schools Athletic Hall of Fame Class includes Albert “Ab” Nicholas, West (athlete); Carlos Polk, Guilford (athlete); 1975 West Women’s Field Hockey (team); 1985 East football (team); Gene Cassioppi, Guilford (coach); and Don May, Guilford (coach).
• Albert “Ab” Nicholas (Athlete Category) — Ab Nicholas was a former all-state basketball player at West who is already an inductee into the University of Wisconsin’s Athletic Hall of Fame. Nicholas is best known for his 1947-48 season when he set a school record of scoring 396 points. It was the first season for legendary Head Coach Alex Saudargas, whose teams won state titles in 1955 and 1956. Nicholas earned all-state honors from the Champaign News-Gazette and the Chicago Daily News and led his team to a 20-5 record. He earned a scholarship and had a successful career at Wisconsin, where he graduated as the second leading scorer of all time. Nicholas now lives in Wisconsin, where he established the Ab Nicholas Scholarship Foundation. He has also given back generously to Rockford, where the Nicholas Conservatory was built and named after him and his brothers.
• Carlos Polk (Athlete Category) — Polk was a Guilford all-state player in the 1990s who went on to play Division I football, then play and coach in the NFL. He’s among the most successful football players to ever come out of RPS. A linebacker in high school, he finished with 453 career tackles for the Vikings, and had 10 fumble recoveries, seven blocked kicks, five interceptions, and 30 hits behind the line of scrimmage for 150 yards lost. He led Guilford to a 7-2 record as a senior in 1995, accumulating 152 tackles, including 13 quarterback sacks for 65 yards, three fumble recoveries, three blocked kicks and one interception. He went on to have a successful career for Nebraska in the late 1990s, earning several All-American honors, before being drafted by the San Diego Chargers in the fourth round (112th overall) in 2001. He played for the Chargers and Dallas Cowboys before taking his talents to the coaching level. He is on Lovie Smith’s staff as an assistant special teams coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
• 1975 West Women’s Field Hockey (Team Category) — Few people know that women’s field hockey was once an IHSA sport, and that Rockford Public Schools had one of the best teams in the state. Women’s field hockey was established in 1975, following Title IX, as one of the sports meant to expand opportunities for female athletes. The first year it was an IHSA sport, a group of athletes from West High School won the state championship. Field hockey failed to grow, however, and it was an IHSA sport for only six years.
• 1985 East Football (Team Category) — The 1985 East football team was the last state championship boys’ team from East to win a state title. The team is just one of three RPS teams to win a state football championship, joining the 1974 East team that was inducted into the RPS Hall of Fame in 2013, and the 1982 Guilford team. The 1985 E-Rabs, led by Head Coach Perry Giardini, went 6-3 during the regular season before making their postseason run to win the Class 5A trophy.
• Don May and Gene Cassioppi (Coach Category) — These men coached alongside each other for almost four decades, so it is only fitting that they will enter the RPS Hall of Fame together. May was the Guilford boys’ swimming coach and Cassioppi the Guilford boys’ diving coach during the era when the Vikings were dominant in the area and extremely competitive in the state. May, who received NIC-10 Male Coach of the Year honors in 1993, retired in 2005 after 40 years. He now lives in New Mexico. Cassioppi followed in 2008, also retiring after 40 years, and remains a Rockford resident. The duo coached dozens of all-state athletes and finished as high as third in the state as a team in 1981 and 1988. Cassioppi also found success coaching girls for several years, including Lisa Coole, a five-time state champion who was inducted into the RPS Hall of Fame in 2013. But it was his partnership with May that stands out the most. Cassioppi and May combined to coach more than 20 state champion relay teams or individuals.
Past Rockford Public Schools Athletic Hall of Fame classes, by year:
• 2014 — Ernie Kent, West (athlete); Donna Cargill, East (athlete); 1939 Rockford Boys’ Basketball (team); Jim Laude, Rockford, East (coach); and Brad “Muzzy” Muzzarelli (community service).
• 2013 — Lisa Coole, Guilford (athlete); Jerry Latin, East (athlete); 1974 East Football (team); 1955-56 West Boys’ Basketball (team); Alex Saudargas, West (coach); and Genelle Samuelson (Community Service).
From the Jan. 7-13, 2015, issue