They came in droves to Exhibit Hall at the John S. Knight Center to honor the standouts at the 2019 Greater Akron Best of Preps gala.

At the inaugural event for the Beacon Journal/Ohio.com, more than 600 student athletes, parents, coaches, athletic directors, referees and lifelong fans made it a priority Tuesday to make sure 200-plus athletes from 28 schools were not just recognized, but appreciated.

It wasn’t just people from the Rubber City and surrounding communities praising the stars. Hall of Famer, six-time Pro Bowler, 2001 Walter Payton Man of the Year and Super Bowl XL champion Jerome Bettis sat down with Beacon Journal/Ohio.com reporter Marla Ridenour for a Q&A.

The former Pittsburgh Steelers running back wanted to give praise to those in attendance, but also offer some advice.

“You have to work harder than you ever have,” Bettis said. “This is the first step. This isn’t the finish line. All this is, is an acknowledgement that you are on the right path. These awards that you got, use them because when you look at it, it should tell you I am doing the right thing, but I’m nowhere close to being done. This is the beginning of how successful I can be.

“If you use that as your platform, the success is surely going to be in your path. You have to be willing to expend that capital every single day in order to be great because being great isn’t just a football term, it’s a life term. You have to be willing to give everything you have to be great in life.”

For the freshmen, sophomores and juniors, it was the first of what could be multiple awards banquets with the Beacon Journal, and for the outgoing seniors it was an opportunity to enjoy high school one last time heading off to college.

Some, like Jacob and Jordan Decatur, are already enrolled in college. The Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy graduates have never forgotten where they came from and made it a priority to drive back up from Ohio State to be recognized.

“This is very cool,” Jacob Decatur said. “When my dad told us about it, we thought of it as one last chance to say goodbye to Akron for a little while as we go down to Columbus and get our grind on. It’s nice to come back and be honored.”

The twin brothers and three-time state champions were named the co-wrestlers of the year at the banquet, making the 90-minute drive worth every mile.

The two headed back to the state capital immediately afterward to make sure they were back in time for practice early Wednesday morning.

“It’s the last hurrah,” Jordan Decatur said. “It’s crazy. Four years ago, I was never expecting to leave Akron. Now that the time has come, it’s nice that we’re going to Ohio State, but we never thought about having to leave the 330. You’re not really leaving, though — you’re holding onto that name and representing Akron.”

The night was about the kids and their accomplishments, but it was also about the athletic family they became over the years.

Stow’s Lizzy Stefanov was named the female athlete of the year after tremendous seasons for the Bulldogs in volleyball and basketball. She’ll head to Tulane to play volleyball in the fall, but couldn’t think of anything better than one last chance to be with friends and family.

“It’s really fun to see all my friends from different sports,” Stefanov said. “It’s just an honor to be invited to it.”

CVCA’s Tre Tucker is already at the University of Cincinnati getting ready for the upcoming football season, but made sure his mother was there to accept both the boys track and field player of the year and male athlete of the year awards on his behalf.

“It’s really nice to recognize the kids who work hard,” Tracey Tucker said. “It’s great to let them know that someone is watching them. It shows them their talent can take them a long way."