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There was no talk of stats or wins and losses. The tenor of Monday's Don Morris Award news conference at Rock Island High School was about way more than athletics.

United Township standout Ryleigh O'Brien and Rock Island star Ben Ellis certainly had wonderful athletic careers but it was likely more about the kind of young people they are that made them the 2018 winners of the annual awards to the top female and male athletes in the Western Big Six.

"I am very impressed with Ryleigh's work ethic but it the smile she brings every day to school and to practice that sets her apart," UT athletic director Bam Pustelnik said of O'Brien. "She just does everything right."

That she does. A 12-time varsity letter winner, O'Brien was a star in volleyball for her first three years and then joined the cross country team this past fall and was the team's No. 2 runner. She was a four-year starter in both basketball and soccer.

Off the court, she is No. 16 in her senior class with a 4.1 grade-point average.

For Ellis, his coaches loved the attitude and competitiveness he showed on and off the field. He is a two-time All-Metro football player and for basketball this past season. He is also an IHSA Academic all-stater in both sports.

"He is the ultimate competitor," Rock Island football coach Ben Hammer said. "As a coach, you appreciate a player such as Ben who will do whatever we asked of him to help his team."

Added basketball coach Thom Sigel, "He had a fun-loving side but when he laces 'em up he is ready to compete. We loved going to war with Ben."

Both athletes understand that there is more to being a great high-school athlete than just playing a game.

"This award is meaningful because it is about both, sports and academics," O'Brien said. "I have always pushed to be the best in the class and on my teams."

Ellis added: "This makes all the hard work I put in worth it. This award is about getting it done on and off the field. I put everything I had into my work in the classroom and my work on the field or court."

For O'Brien, this was an award she had been thinking about for a long time. Following fellow Panther Brittni LaFountaine (last year's winner) only makes it better.

"From the first day I found out about the Don Morris Award I had my heart set on winning it," she said. "There was some really tough competition so that makes it even better. When I got the email telling me I won, I squealed in the car. I was so excited.''

Ellis no has one on his big brother, Jacob, but he knows it wouldn't be worth bragging ... too much.

"He has won his share of awards, so I won't show this off in front of him," Ellis said. "The most exciting thing about this honor is looking at the past winners and the legacy I am following. I makes me smile when I think of the names I am joining."

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