Sterling (Newman Central Catholic)
“A man of charm, honor, and veracity.” That’s a good way to introduce Nate Ahlers, in the words of Christopher Somers, his theology teacher at Newman Central Catholic High school.
Nate has used all those attributes to leave his mark on Newman after four years as a standout student, athlete, and leader. He’s been on the math team and the chess team, he’s active in Key Club, and he’s a student leader in Kairos and Head Sacristan Minister for the school. He was the champion of the “Kick-it-for-Cancer” fundraiser with $3,594 raised.
Nate has done all this while keeping a steady eye on his studies, compiling a 4.43 GPA and knocking out a near-perfect 35 on the ACT. He has really shined in chemistry. In his junior year Nate enrolled in a dual credit course at Sauk Valley Community College, where he impressed his professor, Cindy Everett not just with his schoolwork but his demeanor and maturity. She asked him back this year to be a student worker.
“I have full confidence in entrusting Nate with a variety of tasks ranging from grading student exams to accurately preparing lab solutions,” Professor Everett wrote. “Students truly enjoy being around him. His interactions and responses to their questions are always clear, and the kind, respectful manner in which he speaks to students who are struggling validates Nate’s ability to care about others.”
Don’t forget about athletics. Nate has run track every year, excelling in the long jump, the 100-meter dash, and as a member of Newman’s relay teams. The 4x200 squad took 6th place in state his sophomore year.
But Nate’s favorite memory will always be on the football field. Newman’s teams had been very successful during his Nate’s first three years in school, but had come up short during the playoffs. In 2019 the Comets finally broke through, winning the IHSA Class 2A state championship in resounding fashion. Nate was a starting defensive back on the squad. He was also the team’s placekicker, going a perfect 5-for-5 on extra points in the title game.
Four years of team effort, Nate wrote, “instilled in me an understanding that in order to achieve my goals, I need to refuse any other outcome.” Sounds like a recipe for success.
Nate Ahlers represents IHSA Board of Directors Division No. 4 and his principal is Jennifer Oetting.
For Metamora’s Justin Alderson, soccer and swimming provide the perfect blend of physical and mental conditioning.
“As a center-back in soccer,” he says, “I have to frequently scan the field and stay aware of everything that is happening.” He adds, “In the pool, I have to be mentally aware during my whole swim practice to make sure my form and technique do not slip.”
That mind and body strength translates to every aspect of Justin’s busy life. “My high school activities have made me stronger than I thought I could ever be,” he says. “The mental awareness from participating in two sports has transferred to the classroom and every other part of my life.”
Justin has been a member of Metamora’s swim and soccer teams for all four years, with three years as captain in swimming and one in soccer. He’s been to state three times in swimming, moving up from 8th place in the 200-yard individual medley and 9th in the 100-yard breaststroke as a sophomore to 4th and 5th in those events as a junior and 3rd and 2nd as a senior. It comes as no surprise he has been named MVP on his swim team three times. A USA Swimming Scholastic All-American, he also earned NISCA All-American honors in the 200 IM and numerous conference awards as well as Swimmer of the Year from the Peoria Journal-Star in 2019.
When it comes to academics, Justin shines even brighter. No. 1 in his class at Metamora, he’s earned a 4.73 GPA on a 4.0 scale, with a 34 on his ACT and 1440 on his SAT. He also participates in choir, FCA and Spanish Club. “He exhibits qualities within the classroom that distinguish him from his peers,” says Kathy McCormick, his honors English teacher. “The most notable quality is his drive to excel at every task he undertakes.”
Erinn Sutterland, Justin’s Spanish teacher, concurs. “His behavior in and outside the classroom is ideal,” she writes. “I could not complete this letter without mentioning how proud I am of Justin. He is so very special.”
Justin plans to continue swimming at Georgia Tech, where he will study mechanical engineering.
Justin Alderson represents IHSA Board of Directors Division No. 4 and his principal is Edward List.
As a four-year, four-sport athlete, Jake Baumgarte has acquired a lot of varied skills. To play four years each of basketball, football, soccer, and tennis at Herrin High School, he’s had to do it all.
But it’s not improving his backhand or his jump shot that Jake considers his biggest achievement. Instead, he looks to lessons learned, friendships gained, respect given and respect earned. “I have gained social skills such as listening and being respectful of others,” he says. “As a student-athlete, you have to learn to listen to your coaches and teachers if you want to fulfill your potential. This is something I have prided myself on.”
His efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. “Most students desire to be respected by their peers and teachers, but few are successful. Jake’s caring, honest, dedicated, ambitious, and dependable personality made it easy for him to gain the respect of both the adults and students he encounters in his life,” writes math teacher Rachel Bonifield.
Jake has served as captain of both his basketball and soccer teams, helping Herrin’s basketball team to a regional title last year and earning a trip to state in doubles with his tennis partner. He was MVP of the soccer team all four years, adding four years of All-Conference honors in football, and received All-South honors in tennis.
He’s also participated in math team and ACES, the drafting team, band, Rotary Interact, National Honor Society, and student government, where he serves as vice president for the Class of 2020. He’s been especially successful with math team and ACES, making it to the state competition in both.
“To say that Jake excels academically is an understatement,” offers Bonifield, as she refers to his rigorous class schedule, natural intelligence, and stellar work ethic. His 4.29 GPA on a 4.0 scale puts him in the Top 10 at Herrin, and he scored a 1430 on his SAT. He looks to study civil engineering in college.
“There is no doubt that Jake will succeed,” Matt Hall, his science teacher, concludes. “Jake is such a positive, magnetic young man. I am so grateful that I have had him in my classroom.” Hall adds, “He is someone that draws others in and makes others glad to be around. What a special ability!”
Jake Baumgarte represents IHSA Board of Directors Division No. 7 and his principal is Jeff Johnson.
There was a time, Brody Drake readily admits, when he was happy to take credit for the success of his baseball team, but a little too willing to blame others for its failures. Now the senior at Walter Payton College Prep has a different outlook. A few errors in the field and a long batting slump had him blaming himself — until his teammates rallied around him with encouragement and support.
“In my weakest moment,” Brody wrote, “they molded me into a better player and a better person. Because of experiences like these, I’ve made it a mission to live by the lessons I’ve been taught in sports.”
Brody has taken those lessons to heart. In addition to his spot on the baseball team, Brody has played on the soccer team and was section leader in the concert band. And for something completely different, Brody is also the founder and co-president of an organization called Ground Zero. Inspired by a college-level course his father developed, Ground Zero aims to “educate the Payton community about the fields of business, finance, and entrepreneurship.”
According to Kathryn Pearson, his microeconomics teacher, “Brody has been pivotal in recruiting guest speakers in fields such as investment banking, entrepreneurship, and ‘angel’ investing. He’s also focused on developing a club membership that is diverse in terms of race, class, and gender.” Ms. Pearson added that Brody and another student then put the theories and models they had learned into action, developing a start-up business that included a business plan, employees, and a fully functional app.
“Brody is beyond his years in terms of his clarity of focus on academic and professional goals,” she added. It has shown in the classroom, where Brody is a straight-A student with a 5.24 GPA, scoring 1540 on the SAT.
And as he develops his skill as a leader, Brody is sure the lessons learned on the baseball field will always be with him.
“Being part of a supportive community — win or lose — is the greatest gift baseball has given me,” says Brody.
Brody Drake represents IHSA Board of Directors Division No. 1 and his principal is Tim Devine.
Winnetka (North Shore Country Day)
“I like who I am when I’m playing sports.”
Edith Edwards-Mizel is clear that she’s a different person when she plays basketball, soccer, or tennis. And she’s just fine with that. “I take more risks. I am bolder and more confident,” she says. “I am focused, determined, and tenacious. I won’t be shoved off the soccer ball without resisting. Though I am 5-2, I won’t give up on a rebound. And I won’t ever watch a tennis ball go by.”
In the rest of her life, Edith tells us that she can’t help but think of the next obstacle, the next consequence, the next result, whether that’s a test, a class, or even what’s for dinner. But with sports… “All there is the game at hand,” Edith writes. “You win or you lose, and in the end it’s over. It’s over so long as you know you gave it your all.”
For Edith, “all” is quite a lot. She’s a leader on all her teams, with a combined four years as captain among the three squads. That includes tennis, where her team won two state championships, and soccer, where she helped the Raiders finish as state runner-up in both 2018 and 2019.
An Illinois State Scholar, Edith scored a 35 on her ACT, and she’s compiled a 4.1 GPA on a 4.0 scale, with a resume full of AP courses. She leads the community service club at North Shore Country Day, as well as the feminist discussion group, investment club, and Jewish Culture Club, plus she’s a freshman mentor and she works with her school’s chapter of Camp Kesem, a cancer support group.
“A talented academic and true intellectual, she has demonstrated her skills across all the academic disciplines. An accomplished athlete, she will graduate having competed on an athletic team each season of her high school career and is quite often a change-maker on those teams,” her counselors, Kristen Kaczynski and Lizzy Geffen, write. “Edith is among the most capable and most accomplished students in the history of our school.”
“I like who I am when I’m playing sports, and because of sports I like myself more when I’m not playing sports,” Edith concludes. “I’ve learned the importance of thinking about the present, forgetting the past, and leaving the future for another day. I’ve learned that what I don’t have might matter, but how hard I work matters more.”
Edith Edwards-Mizel represents IHSA Board of Directors Division No. 2 and her principal is David Potter.
After a fourth-place finish in the IHSA Individual Wrestling State Tournament during his freshman year, David Ferrante of Huntley High School was ready to take his place atop the podium as a sophomore. But a painful elbow injury dashed his dreams of a state title.
“A period of introspection followed,” David recalled. “I had a pivotal decision to make: I could either do nothing and wallow in self-pity, or work harder, be more disciplined than ever before, and use this defeat as motivation to become a state champion.”
That strong self-motivation hides behind an unassuming manner that catches people off-guard, according to Stephen Styers, who has taught David in three different AP courses: calculus, linear algebra, and economics. He calls David “a brilliant student with an unparalleled drive to succeed. David realized long ago how the process and the grind of self-improvement are essential to accomplish goals.” One of those goals may be an undergraduate major in economics, arising from his interest in Mr. Styers’ classes.
Given that kind of testimony, you won’t be surprised to hear that David is Huntley’s salutatorian, with a 4.69 weighted GPA and a score of 1520 on the SAT exam.
David has also served as commissioner of Link Crew, a group designed to prepare freshman students for the rigors of academic and social life in high school. “It is unusual that I meet such a mature and responsible person and student,” says Lisa Downing, David’s literature and composition teacher, adding that he approaches life with “a positive attitude and genuine care for others.”
Sports, academics, student leadership — David has done it all. Maybe just for a change of pace, he has also competed on the bass fishing team throughout his high school career.
But back to the mat for the rest of the story. After the injury ended his tournament hopes as a sophomore, David wrestled his way into the state championship match as a junior. After a third-period victory by fall, he recalled that “a tsunami of triumph washed over me.”Just for good measure, David closed out his high school wrestling career in February by repeating as state champion. He is slated to begin wrestling at Northwestern University next year.
David Ferrante represents IHSA Board of Directors Division No. 2 and his principal is Marcus Belin.
Chicago (St. Ignatius College Prep)
“I never lose. I either win or learn.” Those words from Nelson Mandela have resonated for Jacob Flynn across the distance of his running career.
It’s not that Jacob has never lost a race. He has. But by pushing on, he’s found true success. As he’s competed in cross country and track & field at St. Ignatius High School in Chicago, Jacob has learned the value of perseverance, patience, and pushing past setbacks. “In running,” he says, “I enjoy setting and striving for higher and higher goals, and along with that comes many failures.” He adds, “It requires resilience to lose and build yourself back up again for the next race, but I truly believe that failure is the heart of success.”
A four-year competitor in cross country and track & field, with a year as captain of each team, Jacob was named MVP, All-Conference and All-Academic in cross country, as well as All-Academic in track. His Wolfpack cross country team took 3rd place in the 2019 state meet, with Jacob finishing 17th overall on his second trip to state.
Jacob scored a perfect 36 on his ACT and perfect 800s in math and physics on the SAT to go along with a 4.54 GPA on a 4.0 scale at St. Ignatius. He’s a National Merit finalist, a two-year member of the National Honor Society, an Illinois State Scholar, and he won three different AP Scholar awards. He also took part in Scholastic Bowl, his school’s coding club, math team, the Science Olympiad, and robotics.
English teacher and track and cross country coach Ed Ernst notes that Jacob was the first sophomore to take the advanced computer science class at St. Ignatius, while Jacob’s math and science teacher, Dr. Matthew O’Keefe, adds that Jacob was one of only four juniors allowed to take a particularly tough physics class. He ended up with 12 AP classes and five honors classes. And the outcome? He flourished in all of them.
“Jacob Flynn is truly one of the most gifted students I have ever taught,” writes Dr. O’Keefe.
As Jacob looks to his life past high school, he knows he will face challenges. But that’s exactly how he likes it. “The only way to become a better version of myself each day,” he writes, “is by pushing through the barriers I face.”
Jacob Flynn represents IHSA Board of Directors Division No. 1 and his principal is Brianna Latko.
Looking for a mantra for one of her teams, Herrin’s Ashton Hawk came across a quote from the young activist Mattie Stepanek, who died at age 13. “Unity is strength,” Stepanek wrote. “When there is teamwork and collaboration, wonderful things can be achieved.”
Ashton has had many opportunities to fulfill that promise. At Herrin High School she has been an important part of many teams, playing four years of volleyball, basketball, and soccer, and captaining the squad in the last two sports in both her junior and senior years.
This past fall her volleyball team welcomed exchange students from Spain, Italy, and China, presenting a new opportunity for teamwork. Ashton wrote, “It was beautiful to watch language and cultural barriers dissipate in the heat of competition, or sitting on the bench cheering each other on.” And the “unity” generated by those experiences got Ashton thinking: “Sports teach life lessons far more important than the games themselves.”
The lessons of teamwork can be learned away from the court and the playing field. Ashton has been involved in just about as many extracurricular activities as she can fit into her schedule. For four years she’s participated on the math team and the Scholastic Bowl team, concert band, where she is first chair, and marching band, where she is drum major. She participated on the ACES/WYSE program for three years, and in student government as secretary and executive student council as parliamentarian.
Then there’s four years in the Future Business Leaders of America, Rotary Interact, and French Club, where she is an officer, and her junior and senior years in National Honor Society, where she serves as president. Ashton’s AP literature and rhetoric teacher Amanda Hickman mentions a couple more: “she volunteers at a local food pantry and helps host the Special Olympics.”
Ashton scored a 33 on the ACT and carries a sterling 4.3 grade point average. That’s no surprise to Ms. Hickman, who describes Ashton as “an ambitious, perspicacious, driven student.” She adds that “her ability to prioritize her learning even while she supports her community and school is a skill that will serve her well in college and in her career.”
As Ashton wrote in her essay: “To be a good player you first must be a good person.”
Ashton represents IHSA Board of Directors Division No. 7 and her principal is Jeff Johnson.
Aurora (Waubonsie Valley)
Running cross country is a wearying, lonely, and frequently painful pursuit. So what keeps Ashley Heidenreich on course? Let the senior from Waubonsie Valley High School tell you about her “joy of running.”
To train for her final season, she made up her mind to run every forest preserve in DuPage County. “I fell in love with the endless miles of dirt and limestone with no civilization in sight,” she wrote, “as they allowed for pure, uninterrupted running and peaceful contemplation. Thirty-four forest preserves later, I have unearthed new sides of myself that I never knew existed.”
Not to mention a few encounters with dogs and deer, a 20-foot tumble down a hill, and “accidentally stumbling upon a hermit encampment.” It’s all part of the routine for Ashley, because there’s a payoff.
“When I am running,” she says, “my thoughts are wholly free to wind down surprising avenues. Whenever I am stumped on anything from a thesis for an English essay to an existential dilemma, I know I can lace up my trainers and go out in search of answers.”
Ashley has put together a 4.78 grade point along with an ACT score of 34 and SAT of 1510; as a sophomore she was state champion in the Principles of Engineering category at the SkillsUSA competition in Springfield. She also volunteers with her church’s special needs ministry, and is active in Peer Partners and Girl Scouts.
“Ashley does not just settle for being above average,” her AP English teacher Debra Peplow explains. “She excels and requires constant feedback on how she can surpass her current accomplishments.”
That drive has certainly produced results on the race course. She finished first in her cross country regional, second in the sectional, and 11th overall at the state meet in Peoria. That was the icing on the cake after a 17th-place finish in the 3200-meter run at last year’s state track meet.
“I am eternally grateful that high school running has revealed newfound parts of my personality,” Ashley wrote in conclusion, “and will prepare me for the next stage of my life.”
Ashley Heidenrich represents IHSA Board of Directors Division No. 3 and her principal is Jason Stipp.
When she was still in elementary school, Alexis Henrikson would shoot hoops with her dad almost every Sunday. She learned how to make a left-handed lay-up, execute a crossover dribble, and throw a behind-the-back pass.
As she has grown into her high school sports career, Lexy has come to realize that not every valuable lesson involves that kind of physical skill. Instead, she tells us, “I learned the value of three important words: integrity, humility, and sportsmanship.”
Lexy defines those words in her own life by holding herself to the highest standards, being grateful for every opportunity she’s been given, and showing respect for her teammates, other competitors, and officials. It’s translated to leading by word and example in every part of her life.
Her 4.86 GPA on a 4.0 scale puts her in the Top 5 in her class at Williamsville. An Illinois State Scholar, Lexy has also participated in student council, WYSE, Captain’s Council, and YMCA Youth & Government, and she is a four-year leader in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. She also served as the FCA representative to the WHS youth advisory committee and she was a member of the IHSA Leadership Council.
In her four years of basketball, track, and cross country, Lexy has stepped up to serve as captain on her teams five times. Her cross country team has finished 5th, 6th, 7th, and 13th at the state meet, while Lexy made it to state in track three times, taking home 7th and 8th place medals in the 800-meter run. She also competed in the three-point showdown at her basketball regional.
Her honors include being named All-Area in cross country, track & field, and basketball by the State Journal-Register. She was All-Conference 1st Team as well as defensive MVP in basketball, where she scored 1000+ career points, and she was “most valuable runner” in track, “most inspirational” in cross country, and she earned the coaches award in cross country, as well.
“Lexy is a very positive young lady,” writes Williamsville cross country coach Bryan Glass. “She will always represent herself, family, school, church, and community with leadership and integrity.”
Alexis Henrikson represents IHSA Board of Directors Division No. 6 and her principal is Doug Furlow.
Born in a gym? As Erin Henze tells the story, that pretty much sums it up. “My mother was the varsity girls’ basketball coach at Eastland for 27 years, so needless to say, the gym was my nursery,” Erin says.
While she was still in elementary school, Erin and her brothers would take the bus to the high school and sit in on her mom’s practices. “We would shoot at the side baskets, race each other up and down the court, and play one-on-one until our legs went numb,” she writes. During breaks, her mother helped them with their homework, read stories above the noise of balls pounding against the hardwood floor, and made sure they were paying attention to their studies.
That early introduction to hard work and discipline has resonated with Erin all through her school career. It’s made it possible for her to play four years of basketball, softball, and volleyball, to participate in solo & ensemble, chorus, and journalism along with National Honor Society, student council, FCCLA, WYSE, SADD, Cinema Club, Servant Leadership, yearbook, and FFA. She also took first place in the poetry and non-fiction categories of the “Eastland Writes” contest.
Her achievements only begin there. Her volleyball and basketball teams took home state runner-up trophies when she was a freshman and junior, respectively, before she led the Cougars to a state basketball title this past February. Erin served as captain three years in basketball and one in volleyball, and she earned MVP honors in basketball. Erin also shot the lights out in the IHSA Three-Point Showdown, finishing as runner-up there, too. It’s no surprise she’s been named to multiple All-Conference and All-Area teams.
No. 1 in her class, Erin has earned a 4.12 GPA on a 4.0 scale. She’s filled numerous leadership positions in her clubs and activities and has served as class president all four years of high school. An Illinois State Scholar, Erin is a national finalist for the Heisman High School Scholarship and a semifinalist for the Coca-Cola Scholarship.
With all of that to occupy her time, she also found time to volunteer with everything from Special Olympics to “Coins for Cancer,” highway and cemetery cleanup, food pantry, and youth sports. She also works at WCCI radio station as a broadcaster.
Perhaps basketball coach Nicole Brinker says it best: “Erin Henze is a one of a kind.”
Erin Henze represents IHSA Board of Directors Division No. 4 and her principal is Monica Burkholder.
As the trend toward specialization continues among high school athletes, Alex Hess of University High School in Normal has proven that there’s still a place for kids who do it old-school.
“He is one of the few three-sport athletes we have had in the last decade,” says his AP Statistics teacher John Neisler, who also serves as the school’s girls track and cross country coach. “I have an incredible amount of respect for Alex. His commitment to high academic standards while participating is refreshing.”
High standards indeed. Alex scored a 35 on the ACT exam and registered a perfect 4.0 grade point on the school’s unweighted scale. He’s been named an Illinois State Scholar and an AP Scholar with Honors.
Those are impressive accomplishments in four years of study, but Alex will be the first to tell you that not all the learning took place in the classroom. His athletic schedule encompasses cross country in the fall, swimming in the winter, and track in the spring, but he found that “sports seemed to have more downs that ups.” Then he saw the light.
“The difficult times that I had during my athletic career were all self-induced,” he says. “Multiple times I have based my self-worth on my athletic performances. I believed that if I didn’t live up to my own high expectations that I would let everyone else down. These were troubling thoughts that I had consistently throughout my athletic career.”
It took a serious discussion with his track and cross country coach, Lester Hampton, to change Alex’s philosophy. “No one had expectations for me,” he says, “and no one had set lofty goals except myself. I realized after that conversation that I am more than just my performance in sports. Sports have taught me that my self-worth and dignity are not defined by performances. Rather, my attitude will define me.”
It’s the kind of attitude that makes it easy for Mr. Hampton to write, “Alex is one of the most responsible teenagers I’ve worked with” and “he has an unbelievable work ethic.” It’s the kind of attitude that makes Alex a valuable person in the pool or on the track, on the math team or WYSE team, and even as president of the student senate.
“My participation in sports taught me life lessons I hope to take with me into my future,” Alex says.
Alex Hess represents IHSA Board of Directors Division No. 5 and his principal is Andrea Markert.
ANNA MAE KING
It’s not often you find an athlete who excels on the basketball court and the one-meter springboard. For Barrington’s Anna Mae King, it’s just part of a seamless transition that takes place every November.
After capturing the second-place diving medal at the 2019 IHSA state championship meet, Anna Mae said a quick goodbye to the pool and headed to the gym where her basketball teammates were already in the second week of their season.
Though she missed some playing time at her starting guard position, Anna Mae felt she came onto the hardcourt well prepared since both sports require strong legs. Diving improves her jumping ability and it also helps her find strategic solutions to solve problems.
The proof is in the results as Anna Mae was named All-Conference on the hardwood, in addition to serving as a team captain on both the basketball and swimming & diving teams as a junior and senior.
Her basketball coach, Babbi Barreiro, has first-hand knowledge of what makes it possible for Anna Mae to stand out in sports that require such different skills. “Anna Mae possesses a tremendous inner drive,” she writes. “Anna Mae does not get lucky. Anna Mae does not cut corners. Instead, she demands the best from herself, and this in turn creates success not only for herself but for others around her.”
Anna Mae credits her participation in interscholastic activities for nurturing that drive. “By learning to give my best effort in everything I do during practices, games, and meets, I have also learned to do this in the classroom,” said Anna Mae. “I am willing to sacrifice time doing things that may be more fun in order to complete my schoolwork. I want my coaches and teachers to know that I am always giving my best effort to complete any task they give me.”
The 34 she scored on the ACT and 4.31 GPA bear out her statement. “I am so grateful that participating in high school sports has allowed me to flourish as a student and an athlete,” Anna Mae said, “and I am beyond excited to see the many ways that the lessons that I learn in sports will continue to help me in college.”
Anna Mae King represents IHSA Board of Directors Division No. 2 and her principal is Steve McWilliams.
Josh Liu is no stranger to adversity. Yes, he scored a perfect 36 on his ACT and an almost-perfect 1590 on his SAT. Yes, he has successfully competed in four years of basketball and baseball at Vernon Hills High School, as well as four years of solo & ensemble music competitions.
But Josh knows that it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. In what he calls “the sea of positives” that has been his high school career, Josh says, “Some may find it tempting to gloss over the heartbreak, failures, and losses, but I have come to realize that these difficult moments are the ones that have taught me the most.”
He ran into a big challenge in a sophomore baseball game, when he squared up to bunt, but got hit by a pitch instead. “Five minutes later I was on a ride to the hospital, my eye swollen shut where the pitch made contact,” he recalls. He also found out that what he thought was a bruised finger was actually broken. And he ended up sidelined longer with the finger than the eye. “It was frustrating,” he admits, “but I spent the rest of the season doing anything I could to help the team, managing the stats sheet and deciphering opposing pitch calling patterns. I learned to adapt to difficulties and look for different ways I could contribute.”
Josh has contributed to his school through four years each of math team, pep band, and wind ensemble, two years of National Honor Society, and various volunteer projects like Special Olympics, youth summer camps, and food pantry. He’s been named All-State and All-District in ILMEA band, and he’s a candidate for U.S. Presidential Scholar, an AP Scholar with Distinction, and a National Merit Commended Scholar. His 4.588 GPA on a 4.0 scale makes him a standout at Vernon Hills High School.
“Josh is an incredibly strong student,” says Jason Czarnecki, his math teacher and baseball coach. “However, despite always being successful, he still would seek opportunity to further discuss and explore various topics.” He adds that Josh has had more struggles on the baseball field than in class. “His response during those times has been to be a better teammate and work harder.”
“Accomplishments are memorable and inspirational,” Josh writes, “but these lessons from failure and loss are often much more valuable.”
Josh Liu represents IHSA Board of Directors Division No. 2 and his principal is Dr. Jonathan Guillaume.
Downers Grove (North)
Playing center on a football team is a lot like playing cello in a string quartet? So says Brady Moore of Downers Grove North High School.
According to Brady, the job of the five-man offensive line “is only possible through efficient communication, teamwork, and individual accountability. When one player makes a mistake, the play is ruined, so being accountable is critical to the success of the team.”
Brady speaks with authority, as captain of a team that qualified for the state playoffs in 2017 and 2019. Many a football lineman has learned the lesson of teamwork and accountability, but how many can say they have applied those same principles to the world of music?
“The hardest part of playing in a string quartet is playing as a cohesive unit,” Brady says. “This means staying together rhythmically as well as agreeing on phrasing and stylistic choices. In order to make four voices speak as one, the players in a quartet have to communicate through hundreds of small non-verbal cues that keep them on the same page.”
Not surprisingly, Brady’s commitment to excellence has made him a top-rate cellist, playing first-chair for four years in the school’s orchestra and also with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra. In IHSA Music Solo & Ensemble competition he has received Division 1 awards with his quartet and in the solo category.
Brady’s a scholar, too, who wants to study nuclear engineering when he goes to college. The DGN Scholastic Bowl team and math team certainly benefit from a player with a 4.83 GPA and a 35 ACT, and he fits right in as president of the National Honor Society. But he also fits in on the bass fishing team and the rugby club, where he is, again, the captain.
Perhaps most important of all, Brady is a stand-up guy. When Karen Spahr-Thomas, his AP U.S. history teacher, went on medical leave with an extended illness, Brady shoveled her driveway and ran errands for her. “He did not do this for any recognition,” she writes, “but as a way to give back to a teacher that, as Brady stated, made a strong impact on his education and life.”
Braden Moore represents IHSA Board of Directors Division No. 3 and his principal is Janice Schwarze.
Madeleine O’Donnell was just six years old when she decided she wanted to be like Mike — Michael Phelps, that is.
As she jumped in the shallow end of the pool and imitated the hero of the 2008 Summer Olympics, she knew she had found her passion. Almost a decade later, as she entered Stevenson High School, the hard work of building her strength and perfecting her technique had begun to pay off. But would she fit into a close-knit group of swimmers at a school of nearly 5,000 students?
Maddy provides the answer: “When most people think of swimming, they think of following the black line at the bottom of the pool, not the transformative, family-like team that I have come to know. Whether it was cheering for me, or supporting me after a bad race, my teammates became my sisters.”
There are two opportunities for swimmers to succeed on the IHSA calendar, and Maddy has made the most of both of them. During the 2019 fall season she qualified for the state finals in three freestyle races and swam in one relay. The previous year she swam in three relays at state, and as a sophomore her 400-meter relay team won an 11th-place medal.
Water polo is a spring sport, and with Maddy in the front lines as an attacker, Stevenson won the IHSA state championship in 2018 and repeated as state champs in 2019.
“Swimming and water polo have transformed me as a person,” Maddy says. “I have learned to push myself harder than I ever thought, and being a captain has taught me leadership and responsibility. Additionally, learning how to bounce back from a bad race or close game has taught me to recover from failure in and out of the pool.”
Her athletic work takes time and energy, but it hasn’t stopped Maddy from compiling a GPA of 4.59 and an ACT score of 33. She is a National Merit semifinalist, an AP Scholar with Distinction, and a USA Water Polo Academic All-American.
“Her classroom ethic is outstanding,” says her science teacher Jill Lisius. “Her desire to achieve will allow her to be successful as she works toward her next set of goals.”
Madeleine O’Donnell represents IHSA Board of Directors Division No. 2 and her principal is Troy Gobble.
Regan O’Fallon’s relationship with tennis didn’t start out as a love affair. As she puts it, “I hated tennis with everything inside of me for the first few years I played.”
Keep in mind, Regan was only five when she started. “When my siblings and I were young,” she relates, “we figured having a teacher for a mom would be wonderful because she would be home all summer with us to do an assortment of fun activities.” But Mom had different ideas. Regan says, “This naïve fantasy came crashing down very early on for us, as our mom enrolled us in tennis lessons for two hours a day, five days a week, and eight weeks total out of the summer.”
It was no fun at first, but as the summer tennis lessons continued, Regan found herself appreciating them more and more. “Much to my surprise, summer tennis is where I met some of my closest friends, where I gained a second family, and where I learned invaluable life lessons,” she writes. “I grew up on those courts and eventually found love for the activity I once despised.”
But Regan’s life is about more than tennis. Although she competed in four years of doubles competition at Ottawa Township High School, including three trips to state, 4th and 5th place medals, and three Top 10 team finishes, she also played four years of basketball and a year of softball, participated in solo & ensemble and music organization competitions, and made it to state in the annual Three-Point Showdown. She stepped up as captain in both tennis and basketball.
She has served as editor-in-chief of both the school newspaper and yearbook, and she put in four years of student council and “Superfans,” three years of Key Club, Rotary Interact, and the DoChange freshman mentoring program, and two years of National Honor Society. Illustrating her versatility, Regan served as president of both Superfans and NHS. Her 4.64 GPA on a 4.0 scale puts her in the Top 5 of her class. Among her numerous achievements, she scored 33 on her ACT and 1340 on her SAT, and she was named an Illinois State Scholar, Hugh O’Brien Youth Leadership Ambassador, and Academic All-Conference in tennis and basketball four times.
Noting her intelligence, respect for others, and outgoing, positive attitude, English instructor Mark A. Cartwright concludes, “Regan is a wonderful young lady.”
Regan O’Fallon represents IHSA Board of Directors Division No. 4 and her principal is Patrick Leonard.
Chicago (St. Ignatius College Prep)
Starts with I, ends with us.
At freshman orientation at St. Ignatius High School in Chicago, Rhiannon O’Keefe was handed a T-shirt with that motto, echoing the “Ignatius” part of the school name. “I was one of only three students from my grade school committed to making the 45-minute commute downtown to attend St. Ignatius,” she recalls. “I sure felt like an ‘I’ at the time.”
So what did she do to get from “I” to “us”? She joined cross country.
On the team, she found herself mentoring younger athletes, putting their goals ahead of her own, and in the end finding herself overjoyed to share in their accomplishments. That lesson extended to other activities, too, like National Honor Society, where Rhiannon stepped up as president, and the Kairos retreat, where she served as rector. She learned that being in charge wasn’t just about steering other participants, but in giving and getting support from other leaders and supervising adults to seamlessly manage a host of service projects.
Rhiannon is a two-year captain on both her cross country and track & field teams, and along with leading National Honor Society and Kairos, she’s acted as president of Girls in STEM, given back as a freshman mentor, tutored other students for math placement tests, and served on the executive board of the Liturgical Ministry at St. Ignatius.
She’s a school leader on the academic side, as well, with a 4.50 GPA that lands her in the Top 5, and a stellar 35 on her ACT. A National Merit semifinalist, Rhiannon is also an Illinois State Scholar, AP Scholar with Honors, National Hispanic Scholar, and a member of the National Latin Honor Society.
Among her many awards, Rhiannon was named MVP of both her cross country and track teams, and she was All-Conference all four years, plus All-State and All-Conference Academic in cross country, as well as All-Conference in track. Conference champ as a junior, she earned a spot at the IHSA cross country state meet every year, helping her team take 5th last fall at Detweiller Park, and she also made it to state three times in track.
But that simple freshman motto still resonates for Rhiannon. Starts with I, ends with us. She concludes, “I can’t think of a better way to express how much I’ve grown.”
Rhiannon O’Keefe represents IHSA Board of Directors Division No. 1 and her principal is Brianna Latko.
Teachers, coaches, friends and family agree that Tristan Parker was born with innate talent and intelligence. But for Tristan, it’s not about the gifts he was born with. It’s about how hard he works to make the most of those gifts.
“Being a football player and wrestler for all four years of high school has shown me that hard work is the basis for any kind of success,” Tristan tells us. “Even if a team has an astronomical talent level, it will not reach its peak and succeed if players fail to work hard. They must be motivated and committed enough to have the will to work hard every single day at every single practice.”
Ryan T. Lindley, who teaches English and serves as assistant football coach at Morton Community High School, echoes that sentiment. “His effort in the classroom, weight room, and on the field is amongst the best I have seen in my career,” writes Coach Lindley. “He is the model of hard work, leadership, and commitment we wish all our students and student-athletes possessed.”
Coach Lindley adds an anecdote about Tristan’s commitment to the team. “When an injury occurred to our starting center two days before the season opener his junior year, Tristan stepped in at that spot and started in a 24-0 win,” he says. “His ability to be ready to play so well was a direct result of his work ethic.”
What Coach Lindley calls Tristan’s “willingness and enthusiasm to put time and effort into a cause” has paid off in myriad ways. There’s his perfect 5.0 GPA, his perfect 36 on the ACT, 1490 on the SAT, status as a National Merit Commended Scholar, and his selection as 1st team All-Conference in football, 2nd team All-Conference in wrestling, and Academic All-State. He is also an Illinois State Scholar and four-year member of the National Honor Society with four years as a peer helper, four years of student council, and one year each of math team and WYSE.
As a leader, mentor, and teammate, Tristan has given a lot of himself to Morton Community High School. But he’s taking a lot away, too. “The concept of collectively improving, working hard, competing, winning, and losing forces people to find ways to work together,” he notes. “The moments I spent with my team are ones that I will cherish for the rest of my life.”
Tristan Parker represents IHSA Board of Directors Division No. 6 and his principal is Deidre Ripka.
A good athlete makes her teammates better. Sometimes, as in the case of Olivia Rosenstein of Urbana High School, she makes her coach better, too.
So says Zach Boehmke, whose four years of mentoring Olivia in cross country and track have left him “in wonder and admiration.” He adds that “Olivia never goes through the motions. In everything she participates in, Olivia makes it her mission to extract all possible meaning because she wants to believe it is meaningful.”
A top-flight runner, Olivia finished 15th in the state cross country meet as a freshman and fifth as a sophomore. Then stress fractures caught up with her, and she missed her entire junior season. For Olivia, sitting out meant months of work in the pool, running and treading water, in order to maintain her fitness.
“In spite of her setbacks, she has had an unwavering faith in my vision for her as an athlete,” Mr. Boehmke wrote. “This has pushed me to do better and to look for new ways to improve the health and fitness of all my athletes.”
The learning worked both ways. From a book her coach lent her, Olivia began to study running physiology, and that spark lit a fire. “I developed a deep passion for biology,” she wrote, “inspiring me to pursue a biomedical engineering degree. In college, I’ll continue to carry the value of my high school activities with me.”
Any college would be happy to have her. Olivia is an AP Scholar with Distinction, sporting a 5.8 GPA (on a 5-point scale), a 34 on her ACT and 1560 on her SAT.
When not running or in the classroom, Olivia finds time to play principal flute in the school’s orchestra, winning a variety of honors from the Illinois Music Educators Association. She plays in the pep band too and is the secretary of the Key Club and a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity.
Last fall Olivia returned to the cross country team for her senior season, and relying on her well-tested philosophy — “trust my plan, give my best, and stay positive” — she returned to form, finishing fourth in the state in the last cross country race of her high school career.
Olivia Rosenstein represents IHSA Board of Directors Division No. 5 and her principal is Mitchell Berenson.
Oak Park (O.P.-River Forest)
Diving and pole vaulting may not be the most obvious combination of sports, but to Yasmin Ruff, it’s the perfect match.
It didn’t start out that way, however. As a child, her favorite place was the playground, and her parents decided she really needed to get into sports. But which ones? Yasmin tried swimming, soccer, figure skating… But it was gymnastics that stood out. “I was a gymnast for ten years and spent 20 hours a week at the gym,” she remembers. “Unfortunately, in 8th grade, an ankle injury forced me to quit gymnastics. It was devastating. I was going into high school without the most prominent part of my life. If I wasn’t a gymnast, who was I?”
Yasmin began to put together the pieces of that answer, first falling in love with diving as a freshman, on a team that placed fourth in the state, and then discovering the pole vault as a sophomore. She loved being part of a team, riding the bus to meets, and tackling early morning workouts. If diving gave her a chance to soar, pole vault offered even more space to fly high.
At the state swim meet last fall, she finished 4th in the diving competition. She holds six school records as a diver and she was the MVP of her swim team last season. And in the pole vault, Yasmin moved up from 9th place at the state track & field meet as a sophomore to 8th as a junior.
History teacher Peter Ruzicka calls her the perfect student. “She takes the initiative, works diligently, and helps others succeed,” he writes. “Yasmin values being a well-rounded person with high-level skills in all areas.” He ticks off calculus, algebra, and physics as areas where she excels, adding that she’s a fantastic writer, speaker, and collaborator, as well. “Yasmin is self-motivated and relentless in her pursuit of growth and achievement outside of the classroom, in the pool, on the track, and in the community,” he concludes.
Yasmin’s 4.75 GPA on a 4.0 scale puts her in the Top 10 at Oak Park and River Forest High School. An Illinois State Scholar, she scored 1410 on her SAT. She’s a four-year member of the National Honor Society as well as a member of the Spanish Honor Society and she has made honor roll and dean’s list every semester.
Yasmin Ruff represents IHSA Board of Directors Division No. 3 and her IHSA Official Representative is John Stelzer.
Lake Villa (Lakes)
Olivia Schmitt of Lakes Community High School lives by the advice her coach once gave her: “Say no.” No to the pain, the excuses, and the easy way out. No to giving up on her goals.
On the cross country course and on the track, Olivia has needed to persevere to reach her goals. As a freshman she missed qualification for the state cross country meet by a single place. So she stepped up her workouts and monitored her food, water, and sleep even more closely. In the spring she qualified for the IHSA state track meet brought home a 6th-place medal in the 800-meter run.
Injuries slowed Olivia down in her sophomore year, but the next year she shined at state, taking home a 7th-place finish in the 400 and finishing as state runner-up in the 800.
Then it was the fall of her senior year. Olivia didn’t tell the rest of the story in her nomination essay, but her coach Travis Shepherd did. Running in pain the last few weeks of the season, Olivia hobbled up the last incline at Detweiller Park to a 43rd-place finish that helped her team to a second-place trophy in Class 2A. The next week, X-rays revealed that Olivia had competed on a broken ankle.
Calling her “the embodiment of team over self,” Coach Shepherd pointed out that his teams do not often choose captains, but Olivia was the unanimous choice in both cross country and track. Her outlook has been contagious. “Olivia’s tireless hard work and dedication do not go unnoticed as her classmates and teammates have begun to emulate the skills that have made her so successful,” Coach Shepherd said.
Not surprisingly, Olivia has applied the same principles to the classroom and other extracurricular activities. She’s taking six AP courses this year. Her GPA is 4.68 and she’s scored a 34 on the ACT exam. She’s a peer tutor, a member of several honors societies, a three-year member of the math team, and parliamentarian of the Future Business Leaders of America. And she is co-founder and secretary of the Filipino-American Student Association.
“I’ve learned perseverance and emotional strength and how important each is in all aspects of life,” says Olivia. “I plan on continuing to apply what I’ve learned through track and cross country every day.”
Olivia Schmitt represents IHSA Board of Directors Division No. 2 and her principal is David Newberry.
If there’s one thing Charlie Smith has learned in four years of participation in high school sports, it’s “the importance of patience.”
A star runner on the cross country and track teams at Antioch High School, Charlie says he has been “surrounded by sports in just about every single way” for as long as he can remember, and grew up with the knowledge that “sports come with certain sacrifices.”
But during a recent frustrating injury, he reflected on the process of becoming a better athlete. “I learned how to accept how beautifully imperfect the process of trying to reach a goal can be,” he wrote. “I learned to push my limits to a safe edge. More importantly, though, I learned how important it is to be okay with where that limit might be. Competing in cross country and track has taught me to be patient with noticing improvement and to embrace the bumps that are bound to come with the process.”
Measured from year to year, Charlie’s improvement is not hard to detect. As a sophomore he took 10th place at the IHSA cross country state finals at Detweiller Park in Peoria. As a junior he finished 4th. Then last fall he brought home a state championship in a breathtaking finish, crossing the finish line just a few feet ahead of the runner-up. His track career has taken off as well after earning 2nd place in the 1600-meter run at Eastern Illinois University last spring. It’s no surprise that Charlie has been named the school’s most valuable runner in cross country for four years and track for each of his first three seasons.
Athletics is only part of Charlie’s story. He’s been named an Illinois State Scholar, and Darcy Cook of Antioch High calls him “one of the most dynamic, talented and hardworking students I have encountered in 25 years as a school counselor.” Charlie has enrolled in a number of AP courses and according to Ms. Cook, “easily maintains an A+ average while balancing athletics, community involvement and school leadership roles.”
Charlie has been president of the school’s Athletic Advisory Council, a school board liaison, and member of the Student Cabinet. He has also done volunteer work at a local food pantry and other community agencies.
With a GPA of 4.62 and excellent ACT and SAT scores, Charlie is contemplating an engineering degree in college. Whatever path he takes, he is on track to succeed.
Charlie Smith represents IHSA Board of Directors Division No. 2 and his principal is Eric Hamilton.
“We have all heard it before,” says Abigail Stone. “It’s just a game.”
Over her time at Newton Community High School, Abby has come to realize it’s much more than that. She writes, “Behind every game, meet, or match, there are inspiring motivations, great discipline, and tremendous life lessons.”
Abby’s resume is full of games, meets, matches, and activities, resulting in a wide range of lessons learned. “Through sports and activities,” she says, “I have learned how to push myself beyond my limits, how to stay disciplined, and what it means to be a contributing and encouraging teammate.”
Abby has run four years of track and three years of cross country, with a combined three years as captain of those teams. Her 4x400 relay took 3rd place at the state track meet. She added a year of volleyball and two of basketball to go with student council, FCA, Spanish Club, Beta Club, Captain’s Club, and the student advisory board, and she competed in chemistry and English in ACES.
No. 1 in her class with a perfect 5.0 GPA, Abby scored 33 on her ACT and 1350 on her SAT, and she is an Illinois State Scholar. She’s also participated in three years of National Honor Society.
Brock Tarr, assistant track coach and head cross country coach at Newton, offers, “I have watched Abby grow from a gifted and gritty, yet quiet and shy sophomore runner to a young lady that has developed more vocal leadership skills.” He ticks off some of her accomplishments — anchoring a winning 4x400 relay after she’d already given her all in earlier events, setting a Newton course record in cross country, making it to the state cross country meet — before concluding that what’s most important is that “Abby is a top-notch person.”
Newton principal Beth Propst agrees. “I have been very impressed with Abigail’s character,’ she says. “Abigail is friendly, trustworthy, and caring.”
Abby credits her high school sports and activities for those traits. “I firmly believe that the sports and activities I am a part of have developed me into the person I am today.”
Abigail Stone represents IHSA Board of Directors Division No. 5 and her principal is Beth Propst.
When Aron Taylor got to Carbondale High School, he discovered that wrestling wasn’t just for fun anymore.
“I joined wrestling about 12 years ago because I thought it was a fun sport and my family had a history in it, but when I arrived on the high school scene, things changed,” Aron says. Practices were more frequent and much tougher, fierce competition was at every turn, and he now had to follow strict diet and health rules, all while keeping up with his schoolwork, helping 5th to 8th graders in the Junior Wrestling Club, and adding extra running to get down to his weight class before competitions.
Yes, it was a grind. But Aron wouldn’t have it any other way. “Without these experiences through wrestling, finding the mental and physical toughness to battle through those tough times wouldn’t have been so easy.” He adds, “I kept wrestling because I knew it would shape the rest of my life.”
“It is obvious that Aron is truly a good person and has a marvelous work ethic in the classroom and in athletics,” offers Carbondale Athletic Director Mark Albertini. “I found Aron to consistently exhibit the qualities that produce an excellent student-athlete and leader.”
That work ethic has led Aron to three state appearance in the 152-pound weight class, with a 5th place finish this year and 6th as a sophomore and junior. He wrestled all four years and served as captain three times, adding three years as a team leader in freestyle/Greco wrestling, where he qualified for multiple national competitions. He also played Terrier football for four years, with one as captain, and put in a year of jazz music competition as well.
Academically, he ranks in the Top 10 with a 4.3 GPA, scored 1430 on his SAT, and has participated in two years of National Honor Society and WYSE regionals in chemistry and physics.
“As Aron’s college counselor, I have observed him through all four years of high school,” writes Erinn Murphy. “He has been focused on success in and out of the classroom, focused on challenge and growth in and out of the classroom, and focused on being his best self in and out of the classroom.”
Aron Taylor represents IHSA Board of Directors Division No. 7 and his principal is Ryan Thomas.
If you’ve seen Alec Thompson’s name in the newspaper, it’s probably been for his excellence on the playing field.
Alec has captained the United High School football and baseball teams the last two years. He’s earned All-Conference honors on the gridiron and is a four-year starter on the diamond, where he received All-Area recognition from the Quad-City Times.
But there’s plenty more to Alec than sports. His U.S. history teacher, Rod Molek, calls him “a true Renaissance man and a consummate overachiever” and points to his leadership as president of the school’s FFA program. His work with FFA led to Alec starting his own successful iPhone repair business.
Then there’s Scholastic Bowl, which Alec calls “possibly my favorite activity” and one that taught him the valuable lesson that “success can be defined in many ways.” Now add in math team and WYSE, and his duties as treasurer of the National Honor Society. That’s a lot of ways to split one’s free time, but for Alec, who has a 4.28 GPA and registered a score of 35 on the ACT, it’s all in a day’s work.
Finally, throw in a drum roll, because that’s another area where Alec excels. He remembers himself as a shy freshman kid who rejoiced over completing a solo performance on the snare that earned him a No. 1 rating in the IHSA contest. He’s earned the same rating three years in a row now, was named an all-state percussionist, and helped the United band win the Class C state championship in 2019.
“Alec often beats me to school,” writes his band teacher Madeline Wood. “I can hear him practicing from the parking lot, many times before 7 am.” She recalled that Alec was a very quick study. He had no mallet experience (xylophone, marimba, or bells) when he came to high school, but Ms. Wood says Alec never let lack of knowledge or current ability hinder him. If told to learn a new instrument by tomorrow, she says, “he would find a way to do it.”
Now Alec rehearses every Sunday with the Illinois Youth Music Percussion Ensemble and the Peoria Youth Symphony Orchestra. “Music is now, and forever will be, an essential part of me,” he said.
Alec Thompson represents IHSA Board of Directors Division No. 6 and his principal is Amy Schmitz.