Redhawks win big at the 86th Annual Seattle Sports Star of the Year Awards

Redhawks win big at the 86th Annual Seattle Sports Star of the Year Awards

The Seattle Sports Commission presented the 86th Annual Seattle Sports Star of the Year awards (SSY) this past weekend, Saturday, Feb. 27. Two of the eight fan-voted awards that were given out went to Seattle University students. McKenzi Williams, a member of Seattle U’s Women’s Basketball team, won the award for Seattle Sports Star of the Year in women’s sports, while Matthew Esselstrom, a member of Seattle U’s Men’s Lacrosse Club team won the Inspirational Youth Award.

Since its creation in 1936 by Royal Brougham and the Seattle-Post Intelligencer, Seattle Sports Star of the Year has been held annually to celebrate the past year’s most memorable athletes and sports stories in Washington state. 

Some of the many notable athletes to receive the award in past years are Seattle Storm basketball player Sue Bird, former U.S. women’s soccer goalkeeper and University of Washington alum Hope Solo, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and Seattle Mariners all-time great Ken Griffey Jr. In 2014, the Seattle Seahawks won the award for Sports Story of the Year for winning the Super Bowl. 

In addition to celebrating star coaches, athletes and teams, SSY highlights individuals who work in sports media, athletes who give back to the Seattle community and athletes who, by overcoming challenges, serve as an inspiration to others around them.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s ceremonial event was conducted virtually. It was broadcasted on King 5 at 7 p.m. as well as on Sports Radio 950 KJR-AM, KJR-FM and the iHeart Radio app. During the live broadcast, the Seattle Sports Commission announced the winners of the three major awards. 

McKenzi Williams, a redshirt junior guard on Seattle U’s Women’s Basketball team, won the women’s Sports Star of the Year Award, beating out four other talented finalists. She found it “really cool” to compete against these other finalists, especially former Seattle Storm player Alisha Clark who, along with Sue Bird and the entire Seattle Storm team, are big inspirations to Williams.

Williams became the eighth athlete in Seattle U history to receive a Seattle Sports Star of the Year award, following in the footsteps of Johnny O’Brien (1952), Elgin Baylor (1958), Jim Whittaker (1963) and five others. Williams winning this award comes amid her emergence this season as one of the top performers on the team, averaging 16 points per game. Her success has come despite numerous obstacles, including two ACL surgeries while at Seattle U, her father’s death at a young age and her house burning down.

Despite the broadcast premiering just thirty minutes after Williams played a game in Phoenix, Ariz., she was able to stream the show and celebrate her victory with coaches and teammates.

While Williams is appreciative of the award and how it reflects her growth, she knows that there is still room for improvement.

“Winning the award is a major sentiment to what I am capable of. It shows me that the adversity I faced is fuel for me to go further and keep going. Yet, I always believe that there is room to grow because the sky’s the limit. I always want to improve, to be better until I physically can’t,” Williams said.

Williams made sure to thank her coaches as well as the entire program for their work to develop her and her teammates as basketball players and young women. Seattle U Women’s Basketball coach Suzy Barcomb highlighted how special it is that Williams received this honor.

“It was a tremendous award for her and very deserved. It shows that she’s been able to overcome all the challenges put in front of her from a very young age. It’s through her perseverance and belief in herself that she could get through all those life challenges,” Barcomb said. “She came in her freshman year and her progress on the floor as a basketball player has been phenomenal. She has also grown a lot as a leader and developed holistically as a person. For instance, she helps younger players understand what it takes to be successful.”

Award-winning Redhawk Matthew Esselstrom represents another story of overcoming obstacles. Prior to his freshman year at Seattle U, where he plays goalie for the men’s club lacrosse team, Esselstrom transitioned from female to male. That year, he suffered a severe knee injury that required surgery and a lot of rehab. Yet, he managed to return for the final game of his sophomore season to help his team to its only victory of the season. His inspiring comeback earned him co-captain honors for his junior season, which unfortunately was canceled due to COVID-19.

Other award winners include KJ Wright, linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks, who took home the award for Male Sports Star of the Year. Over his ten years with the Seahawks, Wright has been one of the leaders of the team’s defense and an active member of the Seattle community. 

The 2020 Seattle Storm received the 2020 Sports Story of the Year for winning their fourth WNBA title this summer.

Dean Rutz won the Keith Jackson Sports Media Award for his work photographing Seattle sports moments for the Seattle Times over the past 30 years. All Girl Everything Ultimate Program won The Sports Equity and Inclusion award for their use of ultimate frisbee to engage and support Black, Indigneous and other youth of color in South Seattle. 

Lou Pinella, former Major League Baseball (MLB) player and manager, received the Royal Brougham Sports Legend Award for his success managing the Mariners from 1993 to 2002. He led the Mariners to the playoffs four times and was in charge during their MLB record 116-win regular season in 2001. In addition, former National Basketball Association (NBA) All-Star Jamal Crawford accepted the Paul G. Allen Humanitarian Award for the work he has done to help the local community where he was raised. 

Seattle U’s Williams and Esselstrom are in good company with the other 2021 Sports Star of the Year Award winners. As they each celebrate achieving this honor, they remain committed to their respective sports while representing both the university and the city of Seattle well.