When former Wisconsin Badger Josh Gasser looks back on his athletic career, his fondest memories aren’t his two appearances in the Final Four or playing in front of thousands of fans at Big Ten games. Instead, they’re the moments from his high school days when local fans packed into small gyms to watch him play for his community.

That was the message Gasser wanted to convey to over 90 high school athletes in attendance at Wednesday night’s second annual Leader-Telegram Prep Sports Awards. He wanted the athletes to cherish their high school careers and continue to work hard to overcome whatever obstacles they face along the way.

“I was fortunate to play in front of millions of fans on some of the biggest stages, but my greatest memories are from playing youth sports and high school sports, when you’re playing with your best friends that you grew up with,” Gasser said.

For many of the athletes in attendance, the next month is the final time they walk out onto a field in front of their local communities wearing their local towns on their jerseys.

“I’m going to miss that feeling of stepping onto the court before the game even starts,” Durand’s Emily Annis said. “Just looking at the crowd and knowing that they’re all there watching you and your team and wanting you to succeed. That feeling is what I’m going to miss the most.”

Eau Claire North’s Sam Stange, who won athlete of the year honors along with Morgan Radtke of Elk Mound, said he’ll miss those moments on the bus and in practice with his teammates. He said he took pride representing the Eau Claire North community and he’ll miss that as he moves on with his career.

That’s what high school sports creates that few other things can, according to Memonomie athletic director Caleb Hundt.

“It offers a sense of spirit and identity,” Hundt said. “Without high school sports, Menomonie isn’t the Mustangs, we have an identity and around that identity we can create some spirit that gets everyone excited.”

Caden Boettcher found himself in the middle of uniting the Osseo-Fairchild community this past year as he helped lead Thunder basketball down to Madison.

“Making state in basketball brought our community together, it made us stronger,” he said.

Aside from the wins and losses, high school sports helps build character in the boys and girls that participate.

“It taught me a lot of lessons,” Boettcher said “It teaches you the life lessons that you’ll carry on after school.”

It teaches students how to deal with adversity, something Gasser said he had no shortage of early in his career.

“Everyone is going to have adversity as a player or a student,” Gasser said. “It’s not about the adversity you face, it’s about how you’re going to bounce back, that shows your true character.”

Many of these athletes will face a new challenge as they move away from home and into different communities and environments over the next few years.

“Enjoy it and embrace it,” Gasser said. “It can be scary, but everyone feels that way. ... Get comfortable being uncomfortable, whether you’re playing college athletics or just trying to meet friends.”

Before these athletes all head their separate ways, Gasser reminded them to take advantage of the remainder of their high school careers.

“There’s nothing like high school sports,” he said.