Steele Honored by AHSAA


Steele Honored by AHSAA
Alyssa Weisberg

AHSAA Announces Recipients for
2024 ‘Making a Difference’ Award

        MONTGOMERY – Seven individuals who have made an impact as exemplary role models in their schools and communities have been selected as the 2024 Making a Difference Award recipients by the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) and the Alabama High School Athletic Directors & Coaches Association (AHSADCA).
        One recipient from each of the AHSAA’s seven classifications was selected from approximately 90 nominations submitted by AHSAA member schools and other support organizations or individuals. This year’s recipients are:

  • CLASS 1A:  Al Gilmore, nominated by Elba High School as an assistant football and baseball coach; recently accepted the Geneva County High School head football coaching position.
  • CLASS 2A: Juan Williams, LaFayette High School athletic director and head football coach.
  • CLASS 3A: Brad Cunningham, Winfield High School girls’ basketball coach and ambassador for all sports helping train all student-athletes at his school.
  • CLASS 4A: Trinnia McKenzie-Smith, Jackson High School girls’ basketball, volleyball and track coach who also currently serves on the AHSAA Central Board of Control.
  • CLASS 5A: Ronald Steele, John Carroll Catholic High School principal, boys’ basketball coach and a former Cavaliers’ student-athlete standout who was named the state’s Mr. Basketball as a junior and senior.
  • CLASS 6A: Dr. Brenda Coley, the Superintendent of Russell County Schools who grew up in the school system, taught and has worked in the school system for more than 35 years.
  • CLASS 7A: Lisa Ivey, Sparkman High School boys’ and girls’ bowling coach, girls’ golf coach and drivers’ education teacher – and has been an educator for more than 35 years.


        Each honoree will be recognized at the 2024 AHSAA Summer Conference Championship Coaches’ Awards Banquet, which will be held Thursday night, July 18, at the Montgomery Renaissance Hotel and Convention Center at 6 p.m.
       The Making a Difference Award was established in 2011 by the AHSAA and AHSADCA to recognize individuals who go beyond their normal duties as a coach, teacher, or administrator to make a positive impact in their schools and communities. This year’s recipients include one school system superintendent, one principal, two football coaches/athletic directors, two girls’ head basketball coaches, and one bowling and golf coach.
     “The recipients in this 2024 Making a Difference class are excellent examples of men and women who have dedicated themselves to serving students with positive reinforcement, kindness and compassion,” said AHSAA Executive Director Alvin Briggs. “They take their positions as role models for their students, faculty, and community very seriously and have shown exceptional leadership and determination in the challenges each has faced. These individuals have had spent their entire teaching, coaching and administrative careers making a major positive impact in their communities and schools across the state and are excellent examples of what this award stands for. “
     Briggs adds, “We think this award is the most important honor a professional educator in our state can receive. Qualities considered for this prestigious award include the recipient’s character, integrity, determination, and service, all of which have enabled them to have a life-changing impact on the students, school, and communities which they serve.”
    Briggs said this special award exemplifies what makes education-based sports so important.
    “This is one way we can honor our teachers, coaches and administrators for the examples they set and the life lessons they teach on a daily basis,” he said.
    This year’s Class brings the total recognized in the AHSAA “Making a Difference” program to 94 since the first class of recipients in 2011.
    Following is a brief synopsis of the Making a Difference recipients for 2024:

AL GILMORE, ELBA HIGH SCHOOL: A 2001 graduate of G.W. Long High School and Troy University (2008), Gilmore served as an assistant football and baseball coach at Elba High School since 2018. He served as offensive line coach and added the role of offensive coordinator in 2021. Elba’s 2023 squad set a new single season rushing record and rushing touchdowns for in the ’23 season as the Tigers finished undefeated in the regular season for the second straight year. Nominated for the Making a Difference Award by Elba High School, Gilmore accepted the head football coaching and athletic director positions at Geneva County High School in March of 2024.
     “Not only have we coached together, but we have become great friends,” said Elba High School coach Jesse Luker. “I have witnessed many great things Coach Gilmore has done for students at Elba High School and none of which he wants recognition for. He takes kids home (after practice) daily and makes sure they eat supper in his truck before they get home.
    “At every home baseball, basketball, and football game, he goes to the concession stand and give the workers money out of his own pocket so that children without money can get a snack if they want it.  In many situations, I have seen Coach Gilmore step up in a parent role when the student’s real parents would not.”
   Luker added that Gilmore’s concern for the students didn’t just stop while they were in season. “I have seen Coach Gilmore move players and other students into their college dorms just because they wanted him there. He believes that his calling in life is to love every student that he has.”

JUAN WILLIAMS, LAFAYETTE HIGH SCHOOL: The head football coach and athletic director at LaFayette High School since 2020, Williams, 47, has never dodged a challenge. With head-coaching stints at Greensboro, Monroe County and Barbour County high schools, he built struggling programs into ones that were competitive. At LaFayette, his biggest challenge has been to keep the school’s athletic program focused and heading in a positive direction even though the plans to merge schools in Chambers County soon include closing his school. Instead of taking a job somewhere else, Williams has remained steadfast in keeping the Bulldogs’ total athletic program competitive and moving in a positive direction.
    His nominator, Lafayette High School principal Christy Brock-Johnson, said she first saw Williams’ efforts when she was serving as principal at John P. Powell Middle School. “I was impressed with how frequently he would stop by to check on the middle school student-athletes’ grades and behavior. His consistency was reassuring for the teachers if they ever had an issue with the ball players.”
    When she became the third principal in three years at LaFayette High School last year, she said Williams stopped by after a hot and grueling summer practice to see what he could do to help here transition to the new school. “He assured me he would have my back and support me as the school’s new leader,” she said. “His actions gave me the motivation to be optimistic about the school year.”
    She added, “Coach Williams is a great male role model. His presence and leadership in the school and on the field has had a positive impact among the faculty, students and community and has demonstrated just how invested he is in the students and how much he cares.”

BRAD CUNNINGHAM, WINFIELD HIGH SCHOOL: At Winfield High School and Marion County, Brad Cunningham, 58, is much, much more than a girls’ basketball coach. He’s a coach who strives to help each student become the best person they can be – on and off the court or field of play.
   That’s how those who know him well describe him. His nominator Winfield track coach Steve Reaves, who was a Making a Difference recipient himself in 2022, describes his friend and co-worker as “an ambassador for all sports.”
    Cunningham is the father of Alabama’s most recognized modern-day track athlete, Trey Cunningham, who was named the Bowerman Award recipient in 2022 as the nation’s top collegiate student athlete.
    Reaves said Cunningham makes a difference daily.
    “I have seen firsthand his talent, impact on and dedication to the students at Winfield City High School,” Reaves said. “He works tirelessly to help all the athletes become more proficient in their chosen sport. He treats and coaches the girls’ athletes with the same dedication he does for the boys.
     “Brad’s impact doesn’t stop there. He works all year long to raise money for the Big Oak Ranch. Brad possesses incredible character, integrity, and is a positive influence on the sports community. His charitable work, mentorship, and advocacy have made a difference in so many young athletes’ lives who will forever be better people because of his influence.”

TRINNIA McKENZIE-SMITH, JACKSON HIGH SCHOOL: Jackson High School’s girls’ head basketball coach is perhaps the busiest coach in the entire school system. She also coaches volleyball and track, teaches physical education and currently serves as a member of the AHSAA Central Board of Control as the District 1-2 by-district representative.
    Her nominator Crystal Stabler, Jackon High School’s current school counselor, is amazed at just how much is getting done by her friend.
    “I have known Trinnia since coming to Jackson High School in 2002,” she said. “I have had the opportunity to observe her in various settings, and she has always presented herself as a caring and kind professional who is a dedicated member of our school family.”
    Stabler said her friend and co-worker is “always thinking of what she can do to help the next person no matter who the next person is. Maybe it’s a student she has noticed as being unusually quiet, or a co-worker who is ill or has a family member who may be sick. It is not strange for her to initiate a love offering or gift to make that person’s day a little better.”
    She says McKenzie-Smith is a coach who goes an extra mile to show love to her players.
     “Many of them continue to come back year after year to chat with her and let her know how she changed their lives.”
    As a teacher and coach, she is described as knowledgeable and professional in whatever she is involved in.
    “Her leadership is superb because she knows when and how to lead as well as when and how to follow,” said Stabler. “Trinnia has set a standard for her Lady Aggies basketball program from day 1 and has never allowed her program to be compromised or catered to a player or parent.
    “I couldn’t fully appreciate the difference she makes until I became a school counselor. Her program has inspired some positive changes within other programs on our campus.”
RONALD STEELE, JOHN CARROLL CATHOLIC HIGH SCHOOL: As a student-athlete at John Carroll, Ronald Steele was a recognizable name at virtually every high school across the AHSAA. His leadership as a basketball player led the Cavaliers to back-to-back Class 6A state basketball titles, helped put more than 18,000 fans in the BJCC for the state finals versus Parker and earned him All America honors and the prestigious Mr. Basketball Award in 2003 and 2004. He was the first student-athlete in AHSAA state history to earn the award twice.
    He moved to the University of Alabama where he continued to lead on the Crimson Tide basketball team. And when his playing days had ended, well, he came back home. Steele has served in various roles at the Birmingham parochial school including teacher, coach, athletic director, and principal. He has coached girls’ and boys’ basketball and is planning to double as principal and boys’ basketball coach next school year.
    With all that said, his impact on the students and faculty is more about his personal faith and example and how he treats others daily.
    His nominator, Dr. Banyon Allison, wrote in his nomination letter: “Coach Ronald Steele is he most humble person I know. He has a deep belief in God that manifests in his relationship with students.
     “He sponsors Sports Leader, Toy Bowl, and Cavalier Attack,” Allison said. “All of these are Christian-based organizations that develop basketball skills, but more importantly, character building habits. His players, while not perfect, follow Coach Steele’s high expectations of work ethic, respecting rules, and working hard in the classroom.”

DR. BRENDA COLEY, RUSSELL COUNTY SCHOOLS:  Currently serving as Superintendent of Education for Russell County Schools, the Hurtsboro native graduated from Russell County High School in 1984. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Auburn University, a master’s degree and education specialist degree from Troy University, and her Doctor of Education from Walden University.
     Her education career spans more than 35 years – all in the Russell County school system.
     As the school superintendent, she has overseen a remarkable growth in the school system, and has been described by her nominator, Tonya Keene, as “the backbone and driving force behind the growth.”
    Keene adds, “She has been instrumental in bringing Russell County athletic facilities to the forefront of high schools in Alabama.”
    Among those improvements have been the football stadium’s turf surface. LED lighting and jumbotron – and new running track. The school gyms at the high school and middle school have been upgraded with new paint, flooring, and lights. The new softball and baseball complex is now second to none, Keene points out.
   “The latest athletic addition sponsored by Dr. Coley is a new 35,000 square foot athletic facility that will impact every sports team we have,” Keene said.
    “Dr. Coley works hard every day for the students of Russell County, and it inspires her leadership team to do the same. She inspires everyone around her.”

LISA IVEY, SPARKMAN HIGH SCHOOL:  The Senators’ bowling coach for boys and girls also serves as the girls’ golf coach. Coach Ivey has spent 35 years teaching and coaching – while also persevering through some traumatic and tragic losses in her own life, said her nominator, Christopher Shumaker.
    Shumaker added, “Coach Ivey is being nominated by Sparkman High School for the Making a Difference Award for her selfless and tireless acts of service, leadership and mentoring to all she meets.
    Sparkman’s bowling program won back-to-back AHSAA state girls’ championships in 2021 and 2022, the first girls’ bowling title in the sport’s current format in 2016, and her boys’ team won the state crown in 2021 and 2023. Five Sparkman bowlers have also won individual state bowling titles.
   “Her successes on the lanes or on the golf course or in the classroom truly make a difference in the lives of our faculty and students,” Shumaker said.
          Ivey, 54,  graduated from J.O. Johnson High School in 1987. She began her career in education coaching middle school softball and varsity boys’ soccer. She also has served as sponsor for the National Honor Society, Students Against Drunk Driving, and Red Ribbon Week. She established the “Diamond Doll” baseball manager organization at Sparkman High School.
     Madison County Schools athletic director Matt Rogers describes Ivey as a person “who has consistently demonstrated her commitment to student development and community service.”
     Ivey was named the NFHS Alabama Bowling Coach of the Year in 2021. As the girls’ golf coach, Sparkman has won four Madison County championships in her six-year tenure.
    “It is evident that Lisa Ivey goes above and beyond her duties as a coach and teacher,” said Rogers. “She has done all this through many personal setbacks and tragedies, including the prolonged illness of her husband and the loss of her two sons.
    “Lisa Ivey is among the most giving, dependable and hardworking teachers and coaches I’ve ever had the pleasure of working alongside.”