The Sporting Life

Athletics play key role in record six Alcoa valedictorians

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By Stefan Cooper
Sports Editor
Blount Today

Sports taught each of them a sense of fair play.

When it came time to determine who would be valedictorian, Julie and Stefanie Pender, Ali Pasqua, Colleen Barnett, Niki Walker and Cody Blackford decided to stay with the theme.

The remarkable sextet spilt Alcoa High School’s top academic honor six ways at commencement exercises last week, each finishing with matching 4.15 weighted grade point averages. Blackford, an all-region wrestler, delivered the valedictory address, with Pasqua and Barnett, record-setting soccer players, the Penders, all-district volleyball/basketball players, and Walker, a state-sanctioned wrestling scorekeeper, at his side at the lectern.

They’d known since they were juniors it was going to be close. Each took virtually identical class loads the last two years, excepting Blackford, who, in agreement with the group, polished off advanced placement biology as a senior to bring his transcript in line with the other five.

"We didn’t want someone to get booted out of it our senior year," Stefanie Pender said. "So we all looked at what we were taking."

As the school year progressed, they realized they were likely locked in a dead heat, said Blackford, an Air Force Academy appointee.

"We talked about it all year," he said. "When it came down to the time they would actually name them, we talked about it more."

With so unprecedented an achievement in the offing, school officials, in agreement with Barnett, Walker, Blackford, Pasqua and the Penders, agreed SAT/ACT scores would not be used to break a tie, should one result.

When Blackford delivered the goods in the biology class, the end result was all but a formality.

"Those six kids took every honors and every advanced placement class we offer, and they all made As," Alcoa guidance counselor Sonya Marsh said. "When I called them in there to tell them (they’d each been named valedictorian), they already had it figured out. That shows you how smart they are."

The fact that each was involved in athletics at Alcoa, she added, says much about their ability to manage their time.

Pasqua scored a Blount County record 98 goals in four seasons of soccer with the Lady Tornadoes. By middle school, the often-times eye-popping forward was already a coming star on the playing field. She’d become more concerned with how she fared in the classroom long before.

As a sixth-grader, Pasqua, who’ll attend Carson-Newman College in the fall, attended a middle school awards banquet.
"All my best friends were getting called up for making As," she said. "I said, ‘That’s cool. I want to do that.’"

"Since my freshman year, I couldn’t go to sleep until my work was done," Pasqua said. "It’s just not going to happen."
A six-year run of nothing but As hasn’t come without some tense moments. Asked her favorite subject, Pasqua had a revealing answer.

"It used to be math," she said, "but not anymore. After pre-calculus, I’m pretty much over it."

Barnett, who’ll attend the University of Tennessee this fall, teamed with Pasqua in helping the Lady Tornadoes to a pair of district soccer championships during their careers, with the crown two years ago being the first for Alcoa in the sport. With practice and games, there was often little time left at the end of the day for homework, Barnett said.

"The biggest thing for most of us was time management," she said. "For me, I just had to get my stuff done. That (time management) is what it taught me."

It’s no accident, Marsh said.

"My daughter (Brittany) cheered in high school and cheered competitively (with a club)," she said. "She had to be organized. They (student-athletes) learn they have to be organized at an early age. Being organized is a skill, a lifelong skill."

The Pender twins exemplify that trait perhaps better than most. The dynamic and identical duo were members of the volleyball and girls’ basketball teams each of their four years at Alcoa. In the spring, they took part in club volleyball, with practices and weekend tournaments often overlapping with basketball at the high school.

"It was busy," said Julie Pender, who’ll attend Tennessee along with Stefanie and Barnett.

While there was little time to waste in playing sports and maintaining a straight-A average, it was far from drudgery, Julie said.

"I played volleyball with some of my best friends in school," she said. "So that meant a whole lot."

Walker will join Pasqua at Carson-Newman come fall. Her duties as manager and official scorer for the wrestling team, along with wanting to stay around the sport, had a lot to do with it.

"That’s how I chose Carson-Newman," Walker said. "I couldn’t give up wrestling."

Involved with the sport from a young age — her uncle, Gary Thomas, is head coach at William Blount — Walker said she often made use of every spare moment during the day to keep her grades where she wanted them. Prior to matches, there was seldom time to rush home for a study break.

"I usually did my homework while the guys weighed in," she said.

Soccer enabled Pasqua and Barnett to keep tabs on each other’s academic progress, with volleyball and basketball doing much the same for the Penders. With Blackford and Walker in wrestling, it would be no different, leading to Blackford being informed he was one of the six valedictorians in interesting fashion.

Marsh announced the names of the valedictorians the first day of the state wrestling tournament, where Blackford was competing.

"They (the coaches) didn’t tell me the first day because they didn’t want me to worry about anything but wrestling," he said.

Even Barnett, Pasqua, Walker and the Penders weren’t initially informed of Blackford’s inclusion, leading to none too few anxious moments.

"We (the valedictorians) all knew it," he said, "so we were kind of confused."

Jim Blackford, Cody’s father, wasn’t.

"They’d already told him," Cody Blackford said.

After his son wrestled his final high school match at Chattanooga’s McKenzie Arena, Jim Blackford, beaming as he did, Cody said, broke the news.

Blackford, who wants to be a pilot, declined an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to attend the Air Force Academy. There was never really any choice to be made, he said. Asked to list his college choices, in order preference, on an Alcoa questionnaire, he’d named only the academy.

"They said, ‘You’ve got to have a second choice,’ Blackford said. "I said, ‘I don’t need a second choice.’"

Jim Blackford had wanted to attend the academy out of high school but had been denied entrance because of asthma.

After appointment to the academy was finalized, Cody Blackford wrote West Point and respectfully declined.

Blackford, part of a senior class in which 50 percent of its members qualified for Hope scholarships, is the fifth Alcoa graduate in the last six years to receive an appointment to a U.S. military academy, joining former Tornadoes Jeremy Stache (West Point), David Russell (Air Force) and Ira and Ben Thompson (Naval Academy).

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