When they announced the winner of the Cox Sports Award for girls’ indoor track and Erika Pena heard her first name, she thought for sure the next word would not be her last name.
Pena, a Toll Gate sophomore, was one of four nominees for the honor, and one of the others was Bay View senior Erica Johnson, a state champion.
But sure enough, the next word was Pena.
“I was really shocked,” she said. “When they said Erika, I thought it was going to be Erica Johnson. It was crazy. I felt like I had the biggest smile on my face.”
The Cox Sports Awards are in their seventh year of honoring Rhode Island’s best and brightest athletes athletes. Awards are given to the top male and female athlete at each of their respective high school sports. Voting is comprised of three different categories – the general public, a board of governors and Eident Sports.
Pena was one of seven nominees from Warwick schools, joining five from Bishop Hendricken and girls’ lacrosse standout Haley McCusker from Pilgrim.
Pena was the only one to take home the top prize.
“It was really exciting,” she said. “I never expected it. All the other girls were seniors, All-State runners. I was shocked.”
Pena found out she was a nominee a few months ago. She joined Johnson, a four-time state champion in the 600; St. Raphael’s Ashley Jackson, a standout distance runner; and Shea’s Ailine Veiga, a sprinter.
Pena won two medals at the indoor track state championship, finishing sixth in the high jump and sixth in the 55-meter hurdles. She also finished eighth in the long jump.
“It was really my first year focusing on those events, so my goal was to place,” Pena said. “I was really happy to place in both of them.”
Pena is just the second Toll Gate athlete to win a Cox Sports Award. The other was Sam Chace, who also won the indoor track award in 2009.
Pena has been around the Toll Gate track program longer than most sophomores would expect. Her older brother, Austin, was a standout distance runner for the Titans who went on to Rhode Island College. Erika was always around cross country and track meets, and she knew exactly what she wanted to do when it was her turn at Toll Gate.
“My brother was a very big part of me getting involved,” she said. “I was always around Toll Gate track.”
She made an immediate splash as a freshman, emerging as the cross country team’s top runner and then feeling her way in track events she’d never done before.
For her sophomore year, she honed in on the high jump, hurdles and the long jump.
“I really wanted to place at cross country states, but I sort of found out track was my biggest strength,” she said.
Pena followed up her successful indoor campaign with a solid showing in the outdoor season. She finished just outside the medals in the 100 hurdles, taking seventh, and she took eighth in the triple jump.
She’ll be looking for even more success next year.
“I want to take a leading role for the team and place at states again,” Pena said. “I’m looking forward to next year.”
The 2013 Male Athlete of the Year was Christopher Moura of East Providence, and the Female Athlete of the Year was Lincoln High School softball star Lindsay Mayer. Exeter/West Greenwich girls’ soccer coach Kevin Fraser was named High School Coach of the Year. Julia Kavanagh and Brooke Waters were named Special Olympic Unified Athletes of the Year.
The individual fall sport winners were Taylor Stevens (girls’ volleyball); Daniel Apajee (boys’ soccer); Trevor Crawley (boys’ cross country); Lucy Green (field hockey); Aleksandra Drljaca (girls’ tennis); Gary Benedetti (football); Alissa Georgio (girls’ soccer); and Emma McMillan (girls’ cross country).
The winter winners were Daniel Householder (boys’ basketball); Jacelyn Harrington (girls’ basketball); Christopher Moura (boys’ indoor track); Brighton Landroche (cheerleading); Sydney Cooper (girls’ swimming); Morgan Hart (gymnastics); Anthony Taveras (wrestling); Logan Hellwig (boys’ swimming); Alisha Sleboda (girls’ hockey); and Matthew Matson (boys’ hockey).
The spring winners were Mitchell Maloof (baseball); Chris Gerber (boys’ volleyball); Colin Waitkin (boys’ lacrosse); Zachary Hurd (boys’ outdoor track); Lindsay Mayer (softball); Emma McMillan (girls’ outdoor track); Michael Paiva (boys’ tennis); Patrick DiPadua (golf); and Marielle Kraft (girls’ lacrosse).