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STRONG STARTS

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WE SPEND a lot of time at SPORTS ILLUSTRATED focused on athletes in their primes, and this issue is no exception—see the principled excellence of the World Cup--winning U.S. women (page 26); the wildly entertaining carousel of NBA superstars (page 40); the dominant names and trends of the MLB season at its halfway point (page 50). Athletes at the top of their games, in every sense—as fans and storytellers, that's what we're here for.

But there's nothing quite like the rush that comes from identifying and celebrating the next generation of stars, of introducing you to young men and women on the way to being household names. (Coco Gauff? Yes, Coco Gauff—turn to page 36.) Which brings us to another important feature of this issue: a special flip cover honoring the male and female Gatorade High School Athletes of the Year.

Gatorade has been highlighting high school athletic excellence, academic achievement and exemplary character since 1985. First, a player of the year is selected in every state and Washington, D.C., in a dozen sports—six male and six female. From that pool a group of evaluators, including a rep from SI, chooses National Players of the Year in each sport. In 2003, Gatorade added another level, selecting overall Athletes of the Year from the six male and six female national POY finalists.

It's an absurdly impressive club; among the past winners are LeBron James, Allyson Felix, Maya Moore and Kyler Murray. This year's inductees—two more need-to-know names—are Bobby Witt Jr., the No. 2 pick in last month's MLB draft, and Kelley Lynch, the nation's top softball recruit in the class of 2019.

You can read all about their qualifications on the following pages (prepare to feel under-accomplished). But in short: At Colleyville (Texas) Heritage High, Witt Jr., whose father was a longtime major league pitcher, built a case for himself as the best high school shortstop prospect since Alex Rodriguez. Lynch, a pitcher and shortstop, led East Coweta High in Sharpsburg, Ga., to two state titles and had a 0.27 ERA as a senior. Witt Jr. has already started his pro career, with the Royals' rookie league team in Arizona. Lynch will be playing for Washington this fall.

But the AOY honor is about more than sports; the committee also looks for performance in the classroom and in the community. Both athletes graduated with A averages, and both found time between schoolwork and competition for community service. They learned about this honor—and their presence on this cover—at an awards gala in Los Angeles on July 9. Easy prediction: This may not be the last SI cover for either of them. And it will be a lot of fun watching their stars continue to rise.