PRINCETON — Kai Wahlgren and Brian Henning heard the roar of the crowd and the beat of the Princeton High School pep band playing before Friday’s Tiger basketball game with Kewanee.
It took them back 21 years ago, waiting to take the Prouty Gym floor for that night’s battle.
They both pictured it the same way, with former teammate Mike Sitterly leading them onto the floor.
“Sitt always led us through the tunnel,” Wahlgren said.
On Friday, Wahlgren and Henning returned the favor, taking the spirit of their 1988-89 team captain with them onto the floor.
Last fall, Sitterly was diagnosed with AML, an aggressive form of leukemia, which progressed quickly. He passed away Sept. 29, leaving behind his wife, Jill, and their three young children, Cody, Casey and Riley.
A very close-knit group, Sitterly’s friends from the PHS Class of 1989 wanted to do something to honor Sitterly’s legacy. They instituted the Michael J. Sitterly Defensive Player of the Year Award, which will be awarded to a PHS player each season.
Wahlgren and Henning, along with classmates Chip Bird and Mike Thomson, and Sitterly’s family, presented the plaque to PHS coach Jesse Brandt. It includes a picture of Sitt in his No. 32 Tiger jersey, described as our “beloved friend.”
The plaque inscription includes a quote from Sitterly’s coach, Roger Lowe, who was in attendance Friday, which read: “Those who have the courage to play defense are always the last to surrender.”
Each year’s recipient will have his name engraved on the plaque and receive a $500 scholarship award.
Henning and Wahlgren said their dear friend whom they called “Sitt,” was the unquestioned team leader of the 1988-89 Tigers, who posted a 17-9 record.
“I remember him being the leader and the guy who worked hard all the time, bearing down on the other team’s top offensive player,” said Henning, aka “Beaner,” now an attorney for Northwestern Mutual in Milwaukee. “He was a great teammate. A guy who could get people riled up, excited to play. Certainly the leader of our team.”
“He was somebody who always made sure everyone got their chances. Very unselfish, great defense,” said Wahlgren, who works for the Bolingbrook Park District. “Coach Lowe said it best: He cleaned up a lot of our mistakes, our blown assignments.”
Former Tiger Corey Helle, now head women’s volleyball coach at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., who could not make it back for Friday’s presentation, previously said it was Sitterly who made sure Helle felt like a member of the team when he moved to Princeton from Wyanet.
The Tiger teammates figure Sitterly’s reaction to Friday’s presentation would range from being modest to mad.
“He said, ‘Ah, you don’t need to do that for me,’” Henning said. “Just like when he was in high school, he was more concerned about the team than he ever was about himself. I’m sure he’d be a little bit embarrassed, but he’d be honored. I think it’s nice we recognized him and say we’ll never forget him.”
“He’s a very humble guy. He’d be mad if he knew we were doing it, but he’d be proud how we all rallied together,” Wahlgren said. “It just goes to show you the friendships we built here are just as strong as they were back then 21 years later.”
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