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Vikings honored by Niagara PAL

Grand Island High School student-athletes, two of whom overcame major obstacles in returning to competition, were honored on Monday by the Niagara Police Athletic League for academic and athletic success. 

The Niagara PAL presented five awards to four Viking student-athletes on Monday, March 21, at a ceremony in the Viking Mall. Brian Bielec and Riley Decker received the male and female Comeback Awards from the Niagara PAL. Bielec and Avery Mondoux were recognized as the male and female nominees for Prep Athlete of the Year, with Bielec winning the award from among area high schools. Reagan Fast was honored for Unified athletics.

Dr. Bill Wind, of UBMD Orthopaedics, and Tony Surace, director of sports medicine at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center, presented Bielec and Decker with the 2022 Comeback Athlete of the Year awards. Surace said the presentation marked a pair of firsts as both the 2022 female and male Comeback Award winners come from the same school, and Bielec won "a trifecta" as Niagara PAL's GI Prep Athlete Award nominee, overall prep athlete award winner, and Comeback Athlete of the Year recipient.

Decker and Bielec received plaques along with $500 scholarships.

Surace called Bielec and Decker "two well-deserving winners for this year." Surace recalled that he and Dr. Wind started the Comeback Award in 2005 "to recognize those local student-athletes that have suffered adversity from suffering a medical condition or sports-related injury that prevented and challenged them to participate in the sports that they love, but they were able to get back and compete in the sports that they wanted to."

Surace said Bielec had suffered knee injuries that required two surgeries roughly 15 months of each other on the same knee. He rehabbed with support from GI athletic trainer Jeff Green.

"Brian has always been an extremely hard worker and determined student-athlete and rehabilitated his way back with PT and working with Jeff here at the school to compete after each surgery," Surace said. "Brian stayed part of his team while injured, attending every practice and game and encouraging his teammates by cheering them on. Most students who may have one knee surgery may just call it quits and may not compete anymore. Brian marched on and ended up competing at a high level."

Bielec tore his meniscus in his right knee during the start of the lacrosse season and retore the meniscus 13 months later. Despite three surgeries on his knees, Bielec returned in the fall to play football for the Vikings. Bielec was first-team All-Division in football his senior year, scoring 13 touchdowns from the running back position. As a wrestler, Bielec became a five-time All-NFL honoree and a three-time Section VI champion. He recently finished fifth in the state tournament and concluded his GI career with 198 victories, the GI all-time record.

Surace said Decker came back from heart surgery to repair an atrial septal defect, a hole in her heart, in 2020 to compete in cross country for the Vikings.

Decker completed a run just one month and three days after having heart surgery. Her "dedication and commitment to overcoming adversity" made her an easy choice to receive the Comeback Award, Surace said.

GI cross country coach Michelle White said, "It's hard to put into words from a coach's perspective just how amazing Riley's road to recovery has been. Watching her battle back to full strength was the hardest thing I've ever actually had to do as a coach."

White said Decker's cross country season had more than its share of hills and valleys. "To watch her go through it knowing that she was going through physical pain and knowing that each day it was emotionally wracking to watch her teammates run while she stood by and had her vitals checked was just the hardest thing that I think a runner can endure or an athlete can endure," White said. "But somehow suffering through the pain of her heart learning how to pump that fast again, Riley just kept showing up day by day, mile by mile, tear by tear. She slowly became whole again."

White said to Decker and Bielec, "To be a comeback athlete speaks volumes for your character, and I want to just bring some attention to that today. We as coaches never wish these scenarios on any athlete, but there's something that you walk away with when you come back from it, and that's grit. Grit and heart and determination not only make you get back, help you get back to where you were, but it makes you even better than before. So for the both of you, I congratulate you on overcoming that hurdle. I'm so thankful that Riley could be recognized for this award. It's made all of her tears and her bad days and her pain and her suffering through this worth it because she's not only being recognized for the amazing athlete that she is, but also for the journey that she was able to overcome."

Wind said, speaking from a physician's perspective, "Think about how much effort it is just to get to where you are at that high level, and then you have an injury and you have to get back to that level. It's really, really challenging. So I really congratulate the two of you for your efforts."

Bielec was also recognized Monday by the school as Grand Island's nominee for the Niagara PAL Male Prep Athlete of the Year, while Mondoux was recognized as the GI nominee for Niagara PAL Female Prep Athlete of the year, and Fast was recognized as the nominee for Niagara PAL in Unified athletics.

Unified coach Melissa Kosmoski said Fast "always has a smile. She's encouraging to our teammates. She always has a positive attitude and will be greatly missed."

Mondoux, a member of the National Honor Society, was a three-year starter for the Vikings girls soccer team and a two-year member of the indoor track team. In soccer, she scored 70 goals with 41 assists for her GI career. As a senior, she was NFL Player of the Year, first-team All-Western New York, and second-team All-State.