By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee Tech Athletics wrapped up its recognition of the best and brightest of its more than 300 student-athletes by releasing the final two winners of its 2021 Golden Wings Awards.
On Friday, the two highest honors bestowed by Tech Athletics were announced. The Woman of the Year award, the department’s longest-standing recognition, was established in 1991 in conjunction with the NCAA Woman of the Year honor. Joining 32 previous winners of the Woman of the Year award was volleyball’s Ali Verzani. Gavin Johns of the baseball team was named Man of the Year, an award that was born in 1993 and has seen 27 winners.
To be eligible for each award, a student-athlete must be a senior or graduate student who has completed her athletic eligibility during 2020-21. Criteria for selecting the award include both athletic and academic accomplishments, as well as additional areas such as community and campus involvement and public service activities.
A senior outside hitter, Verzani was a model student in the classroom and dominant force on the volleyball court throughout her three-year career at Tech after transferring in from Iowa Western Community College in 2018.
The Sioux City, Iowa native carried a 3.8 GPA while earning her bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies in December 2019 and followed it up with a perfect 4.0 GPA while collecting her master’s in business administration in May 2021. Verzani was a member of the Athletic Director’s Honor Roll in each of her six semesters at Tech and a two-time member of the Ohio Valley Conference Commissioner’s Honor Roll.
She also claimed the OVC Scholar Athlete of the Year award for 2020-21, the highest honor that can be earned by an OVC student-athlete. Additionally, she earned the OVC Academic Medal of Honor twice.
Verzani was constantly involved around campus and the community in her time at Tech, serving as an academic tutor, teacher’s assistant, Student-Athlete Advisory Committee vice president, team captain, and more. She participated in numerous community service and outreach opportunities and was a member of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society and Chi Alpha campus ministry.
In her three seasons on the hardwood, the outside hitter racked up 899 kills, 775 digs, 114 blocks, and 1,057 total points. As a junior, she was selected as a member of the All-OVC First Team. During her senior campaign, she led the team in kills, service aces, and points while placing second in the league in aces.
Verzani represented the ninth member of the Golden Eagle volleyball team to be named Woman of the Year, joining the likes of Bonnie Zoss (1993), Rachel Melchiorre (1998), Diane Seng (2000), Laura Sidorowicz (2005), Anne Morrow (2006), Kappy Lang (2009), Teresa Craig (2010) and Susie Jeziorowski (2019).
After losing the majority of his original senior campaign in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gavin Johns returned for the 2021 season and earned Man of the Year accolades while providing unheralded leadership both for the baseball team and the athletic department as a whole.
A transfer from UCLA in 2019, Johns made his three years in Cookeville count, particularly with his involvement in the community and on campus. He served as a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes Leadership Team and the Center of Diversity Education (C.O.D.E.) while participating as a mentor and coach in Putnam County Youth Baseball.
Johns volunteered in many avenues, including organizing a holiday gear drive donation for kids in need, helping feed the homeless every week during the 2021 season, assisting with Samaritans Purse’s cleanup efforts after the tornado that ravage through Putnam County in 2020, and several other opportunities around the community.
In the classroom, Johns earned a 3.8 GPA on his way to earning a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies in December 2019. He followed it up with a perfect 4.0 mark while acquiring his master’s in professional studies with an emphasis in strategic leadership in May 2021. The Temecula, Calif. native was a six-time member of the Athletic Director’s Honor Roll, a two-time member of the OVC Commissioner’s Honor Roll, and a one-time winner of the OVC Medal of Honor.
In three seasons on the diamond, he posted a .275 batting average with 45 runs, 95 hits, 20 doubles, nine home runs, and 57 RBI. Johns proved to be an unselfish player, willing to plug in wherever needed and playing as many as six different positions during his career.
With the honor, Johns became the sixth member of the Golden Eagle baseball team to earn Tech’s Man of the Year Award, joining a group including Ben Holt (1993), Mike Kinney (1994), Thomas Nelson (2008), Tristan Archer (2013), and Trevor Putzig (2018).
The Golden Wings Awards, which enters its fifth year, is an end-of-the-year award ceremony for the Tennessee Tech University student-athletes to honor and celebrate their academic and athletic accomplishments over the past complete seasons.
Due to the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent cancellation of the remainder of campus activities for the 2019-20 academic year, the annual awards show was also canceled. The choice was made to still honor the student-athletes for their accomplishments, however, as each competitive season drawn from to determine the honors had been completed.
The timeframe of the awards period is the current season (2019-20 in this instance) except for sports that compete in the spring, including baseball, softball, outdoor track & field, men’s golf, women’s golf and tennis. With those sports typically competing with a large portion of their seasons still left at the time of the awards show, the previous campaigns (2018-19 in this instance) are recognized. The Man and Woman of the Year awards encompass the 2019-20 period for all sports.
Prior to the 2019 Golden Wings Awards, men’s golf, women’s golf and tennis were included from their current season, but due to scheduling conflicts and to allow a more complete campaign from which to gather nominees, the three sports were added to the rest of the spring sports in using its previous season for consideration.
Prior to the first Golden Wings Awards show, Tennessee Tech Athletics annually presented four awards to deserving student-athletes, including Male Athlete of the Year, Female Athlete of the Year, Man of the Year and Woman of the Year. The first honor established, for the 1990-91 academic year, was the Woman of the Year Award, coinciding with the first NCAA Woman of the Year Award. Two years later, in 1992-93, Tech established its Man of the Year Award. Both the Male Athlete of the Year and Female Athlete of the Year honors were added for the 1993-94 academic year. The four honors were officially adopted into the Golden Wings Awards, including criteria, for the 2016-17 academic year and all previous winners can also be found in the all-time list below.