Semoball Awards marks 10th anniversary this summer

A student shakes keynote speaker Mark Schlereth's hand on stage at the 2016 Semoball Awards show in the River Campus' Bedell Hall. This year's Semoball Awards will be held on July 14 at LaCroix Church in Cape Girardeau.

Picture this: You’re a talented athlete in Southeast Missouri. Big school or small school, it doesn’t matter. You might have ambitions of playing your sport at the college level. But let’s be honest. For many of us, the road of competitive sports ends when we walk across the stage at graduation. Still, there’s one event you want to be invited to each summer. It’s where the best of the best see each other as colleagues instead of competition.

The Semoball Awards.

First-class. Unforgettable. A night that leaves all inspired and proud.

That’s been the mantra for this event over the last decade. And the evening certainly lives up to the hype.

Lucas Presson speaks on stage at the 2015 Semoball Awards. High school athletes from across Southeast Missouri are in attendance.

Think ESPYs. NFL Honors. The Academy Awards for Southeast Missouri high school sports.

Two hundred finalists are recognized each July at the area’s premier event recognizing the top student-athletes and coaches.

It’s inspiring. Not simply because of the athletic accomplishments of these athletes, which stand for themselves, but also for their success off the field and in the classroom.

There are 21 sport-specific awards ranging from big sports in many schools like football and basketball to more niche sports like boys and girls golf. Plus there are top awards like Coach of the Year, Comeback Athlete of the Year, the Sportsmanship Award, Scholar Athletes of the Year and the Male and Female Athletes of the year.

The finalists and winners are selected by a panel of sports journalists from contributing newspapers, which includes: Southeast Missourian, Standard Democrat, Daily American Republic, Delta Dunklin Democrat and Dexter Statesman.

One school is recognized with the Semoball Cup, an award that recognizes the athletics program that experienced the most success throughout the school year. A Lifetime Achievement Award is presented to an individual who has made significant contributions to high school sports in the area. And there’s even a fan-voted Best Fans honor, which allows communities to show their school pride in a friendly, but competitive, online vote.

How it started

In 2014, Rust Communications launched the first Semoball Awards in Cape Girardeau. The idea, sparked by company president Jon K. Rust, was to create an event unlike anything the athletes in Southeast Missouri had ever experienced, culminating the evening with a celebrity keynote speaker who would share an inspiring message.

Southeast Missourian assistant publisher Lucas Presson, who spearheaded the inaugural event including its business leadership, said the speaker choice each year is one of the big decisions for the team.

“Kyle Maynard, a congenital, quadruple amputee and two-time ESPY Award winner was our keynote speaker the first year and gave a tremendous talk,” Presson said. “We look for speakers who will connect with a range of attendees and have a positive message. The night is about recognizing the athletes. The speaker is the opportunity to inspire. And each of our speakers has done this in their own unique way.”

Other previous Semoball Awards speakers include: Olympic softball great Jennie Finch, NFL player and analyst Mark Schlereth, World Series MVP David Eckstein, WNBA star Lisa Leslie, Cardinals broadcaster Rick Horton, Cardinals reliever Andrew Miller and comedian Mike Goodwin.

Dan Meers, also known as KC Wolf for the defending Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs, will speak at the event on July 14 at La Croix Church. Meers, who survived a stunt-gone-wrong at Arrowhead Stadium, will share his incredible story focused on faith, perseverance and overcoming adversity.

Southeast Missourian assistant publisher Lucas Presson and Rust Communications president Jon K. Rust throw a football on stage to kick off the 2022 Semoball Awards.

The show

While the keynote speaker is a big part of the show, there’s so much more.

From the time guests arrive, there’s a red carpet experience with photos, live radio show with the SEMO ESPN set on site, heavy hors d'oeuvres and more. New this year will be a DJ and 360-photo booth as part of the red carpet festivities.

The show itself is produced at a high level by the team at rustmedia. It includes both award-winning video elements and live elements that mix music, dance, lights and video. Talented River Radio personalities, this year featuring Mike Renick and Rachel Cook, guide the audience through the evening. Over the years, surprise video special guest appearances have included Ozzie Smith, Mike Matheny and ESPN personalities Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic, among others.

“Months of planning and production go into creating the Semoball Awards each year,” Jeff Rawson, creative director at rustmedia, said. “Our team's focus is always on the incredible young people this event was created to recognize and each element is designed with them and their families in mind. From live performances and the red carpet entrance to the food, videos and presentation of the awards, it's their night, and we aim to make it an experience to remember.”

Experience drives results. From the time guests enter the facility to the time they leave, it’s about making good impressions. But the experience begins well before the night of the event.

Jamie Phillips is the project and event manager for rustmedia and coordinates much of the event, from food and decorations to communicating with the athletic directors, athletes, parents and sponsors who will attend. The show itself draws nearly 1,000 people. And there are many moving parts to make sure all goes smoothly.

High school student athletes watch the 2022 Semoball Awards show at LaCroix Church. The 2022 speaker was comedian Mike Goodwin.

"Coordinating the Semoball Awards is a true team effort – from the editors who cover hours and hours of games finding the best of the best, to the coaches and athletic directors who help get students to the event to the production and venue team who work for months to make sure the event production is top-notch,” Phillips said.

Phillips said she also sees a special camaraderie among the athletes at the event. There are teenagers who competed against each other a few months ago who have developed friendships over the years.

"One of the best parts about my role is seeing the interaction among the attendees,” Phillips said. “I am always surprised by how many of the athletes not only know but are friends with athletes from other schools. It's also nice to get to meet many of the athletes and their families. They are always at the forefront of our minds as we plan, so by the night of the event, it feels like I already know them, and it is great to hear from them how thankful they are that we put on such a high-quality event."

An event of this magnitude takes resources. Several area sponsors have partnered to make the show and the seven months of promotion possible.

SoutheastHEALTH has been the presenting sponsor of the Semoball Awards since the very beginning.

Dr. Matt Janzow, SoutheastHEALTH vice president and chief medical officer, said at the speaker announcement in April that the Semoball Awards connects well with the health system’s mission.

"The Semoball Awards program aligns with our commitment to positively impact young people in our region and to be supportive as they work to reach milestone goals both in the classroom and in their sport," Janzow said. "Health care and sports have much in common. Both take training, diligence, determination and, most of all, teamwork."

The Bank of Missouri has been the Official Bank Sponsor for several years, matching their business footprint with the Southeast Missouri sports footprint this event recognizes.

The 2022 Semoball Awards are kicked off with an audio-visual display created by rustmedia, and a live drum performance by Dave Pfanstiel.

Other leading sponsors include SEMO ESPN Radio, the St. Louis Cardinals, rustmedia and the local newspapers in Southeast Missouri. Crader Distributing and your local STIHL Dealers and Cook, Barkett, Ponder & Wolz are premier sponsors.

“Our sponsors make it possible for us to produce this event for the area’s athletes,” Presson said. “They recognize the impact this makes not only in Cape Girardeau and Jackson but across Southeast Missouri, from Perryville to the Bootheel and over to Poplar Bluff. It’s 56 schools across Southeast Missouri. Sports that every school has and sports that only a few provide. It’s athletics. But it’s also academics and character. It’s a credit to these sponsors for supporting an event that recognizes all these things.”

Presson said beyond the individual sport recognitions, some of his favorite awards of the evening tell the compelling comeback stories of athletes, examples of sportsmanship and the Lifetime Achievement recognition.

“One specific finalist last year was a young lady who served as a guide runner for another runner who was blind. Another year there was a baseball player who gave up his spot in the lineup for his teammate who missed out on the season due to an injury. There are countless examples of athletes who have overcome injuries to make amazing comebacks. And, of course, you can’t forget the inspirational Terry Kitchen Lifetime Achievement Award speech from 2018. These are the stories I remember each year,” Presson said.

This year’s event will be held Saturday, July 14 at La Croix Church in Cape Girardeau. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. with the red carpet experience. The show begins at 7 p.m. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit