Class of 2018 top high school graduates share their memories, plans, gratitude

EDITOR’S NOTE: Following are photos and brief biographies of the valedictorians and salutatorians at the seven Catholic high schools and academies in the Diocese of Peoria. We congratulate them and all graduates. The top students were invited to answer two questions: 1) “How would you describe the advantages of attending a Catholic high school?” and 2) “Name one or two most significant memories from your high school experience, and explain why they were memorable.”

MATTHEW STONER — Valedictorian, Central Catholic, Bloomington

Parents: Randy and Kristin Stoner

Town: Bloomington

Parish: Epiphany, Normal

College choice: Purdue University

Anticipated major: Chemical Engineering

High school activities: baseball, Scholastic Bowl, Worldwide Youth in Science and Engineering (WYSE) team, math team

Catholic school advantages: One advantage of attending a Catholic school is that the community at the school is generally relatively small, therefore you can be closer with both students and teachers. There is also a better opportunity for more discussions on various topics that you wouldn’t be able to get at another school.

Memorable moments: One of my most significant memories from high school is the senior retreat that all the seniors went on near the end of the year. This was memorable because it was a day long retreat where we played games, talked in small groups, and became closer with our classmates. This experience was unlike anything else we did during high school, which made it memorable.


CLARE WIELAND — Salutatorian, Central Catholic, Bloomington

Parents: Dr. John and Kathy Wieland

Town: Bloomington

Parish: Holy Trinity, Bloomington

College choice: University of Notre Dame

Anticipated major: Biochemistry

High school activities: varsity tennis, musical for four years, choir, band, Interact Club, Vita Christi (club), National Honor Society

Catholic school advantages: Having a very close, small community full of faith, love and support has given me such a strong foundation to achieve anything.

Memorable moments: The Special Olympics event that Central hosts for Unit 5: The senior class always helps with the kids and I got to see my classmates become so caring and kind with these special needs kids. It was an awesome experience.

MADELYN EVANGELISTI — Valedictorian, The High School of Saint Thomas More, Champaign

Parents: Kimberely Evangelisti and Chris Evangelisti

Town: Champaign


Parish: St. Matthew, Champaign

College choice: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Anticipated major: Systems Engineering and Design

High school activities: cheerleading captain, Spanish Honors Society, community outreach coordinator, peer tutoring president, Spanish Club president, National Honor Society vice president

Catholic school advantages: Attending Catholic high school is one of the greatest gifts I have received in my life. Not only was I able to push myself academically in the challenging atmosphere, but I was also able to feel love and acceptance by my peers and God through the faith basis that was prevalent in each aspect of society. Being able to be on a sports team that has Christ as its number one player, to be with friends who love God more than anything, to be in a challenging atmosphere where we support one another to do our best, and to be in a place where God is the center and we love each other before ourselves is such a beautiful gift. I know that because of this unique education, I will go on to college along with my peers continuing that atmosphere by spreading love and supporting those around me as we did at STM.

Memorable moments: The most memorable moment of my high school career summarize the life-changing experience as a whole. My favorite memory was when I fell. How ironic, right? I didn’t just fall and get a little embarrassed. I fell in front of an entire football stadium full of Saber fans on Senior Night when I was a sophomore. While I was cheerleading with my team we ran out to do our dance performance at halftime. As we were running, I knocked our one and only senior to the floor as I slid on the field. The whole thing was on video and it was the talk of the week. Instead of becoming embarrassed and ashamed of the fall, I embraced it. I laughed, got back up, and continued the dance. This memory shows how STM shaped me into being a strong and persevering woman. No matter what comes my way, I will always get back up with a smile because of the people who are helping me up and God who is showing me the way.


MICHAEL LEE — Salutatorian, The High School of Saint Thomas More

Parents: Hyokyung Joe Lee and Hyeyoung Mary Lee

Town: Savoy

Parish: St. Matthew, Champaign

College choice: University of Notre Dame

Anticipated major: Biochemistry

High school activities: Assistant Pipe Organist and altar server (St. Matthew Church), band (flute), Madrigals, cross country, track and field, Spanish Honor Society, National Honor Society, math team, Science Olympiad, Scholastic Bowl

Catholic school advantages: As a Catholic high school student, I had the opportunity to study theology and pray whenever I needed to. Theology courses have opened my eyes to morality, and I was truly able to cope with stress through focused prayer. Hence, I am ready to demonstrate prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance within the realms of reality with the following virtues in mind: faith, hope, and love.

Memorable moments: 1. ) The March for Life. Aside from being able to witness the grandeur landmarks in Washington D.C., the March for Life helped me to understand how precious yet vulnerable life is. It was also my first time participating in a political activism. Overall, the march has taught me to always be thankful for the opportunity to live and witness God’s marvelous creations. It also inspired me to continue praying for parents who are doubtful of their ability to raise children. 2.) Stations of the Cross Workout. During the season of Lent, our P.E. class participated in the Stations of the Cross Workout. This workout consisted of 14 stations of core and cardio workouts. Although the workout was quite difficult, its significance helped me to realize that our life struggles are trivial compared to the struggle that Jesus faced before his death on the cross. I strive to keep this in mind everyday whenever I face personal difficulties. Finally, the workout truly emphasized Jesus’ eternal love for us through his unmatched sacrifice.

MATTHEW JAMES LARSON — Valedictorian, Schlarman Academy, Danville

Parents: Judy Larson, Brian Larson

Town: Danville


Parish: St. Paul, Danville

College choice: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Anticipated major: Materials Science and Engineering

High school activities: archery, Scholastic Bowl, cross country.

Catholic school advantages: One of the best things about attending a Catholic high school is the sense of community. Everyone has that shared culture, and it comes through in how much the faculty and students care about each other.

Memorable moments: Being captain of the Scholastic Bowl team was a great experience. It was my first time being captain in a sport, and our team was very small, allowing us to be close-knit, even if we had to work harder to keep up at meets. I learned a lot about how to head a team, while also having fun.


ALEKSAS MARIE DIETZEN — Salutatorian, Schlarman Academy, Danville

Parents:  Robb and Christina Dietzen

Town: Danville

Parish: Holy Family, Danville

College choice: Indiana State University

Anticipated major: Nursing

High school activities: volleyball, softball, basketball, class officer, S.T.A.N.D. (Students Taking A New Direction), National Honor Society, March for Life

Catholic high school advantages: The biggest advantage of going to a Catholic school is keeping my faith alive. At a Catholic high school, faith is in everything we do. We keep God first, as an entire school, which is why I believe that my faith is my biggest advantage.

Memorable moments: One significant memory was when our whole senior class went to a senior retreat this year. At this retreat, we grew in our prayer life and how to keep our faith exciting to us. Besides those things, we played a lot of cool games with our local priests like cornhole and sand volleyball. We even walked around the entire retreat center while praying the rosary.

ANTHONY WILLI  Valedictorian, Peoria Notre Dame

Parents: Martin and Mary Willi

Town: Dunlap

Parish: St. Jude, Peoria

College choice: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Anticipated major: Mechanical Engineering

High school activities: FIRST Robotics, Scholastic Bowl, table tennis, Disc Golf Club, Teens for Life, and Lumen Christi

Catholic school advantages: The main advantages would be the ability to go to daily Mass, the ability to go to confession, and the small groups, specifically Man Club. Man Club was a fantastic group as it mainly consisted of high school guys and a chaplain talking about how to improve and to become better men.

Memorable moments: The most significant memory I had during my high school experience was the end of the year banquet for our robotics team. I had the chance to watch a video of me and my fellow seniors throughout our years on the team. Having been a part of the robotics experience for most of my life, it was really special to see how I had grown throughout high school and also really special to be given the opportunity to thank those who helped me to grow as a person and to choose a career.


ANNA BUCKLAR — Salutatorian,  Peoria Notre Dame

Parents: Tom and Tessie Bucklar

Town: Peoria Heights

Parish: St. Thomas the Apostle, Peoria Heights

College choice: University of Wisconsin-Madison

Anticipated major: Economics and political science

High school activities: Student Council president, Student Ambassador, varsity golf

Catholic school advantages: Going to a Catholic school adds a whole new dimension to the high school experience. Religion classes allow students to study and build on their faith. Advantages can be seen through all aspects of the teaching curriculum. When a student is stressed about homework or a test, the chapel is always open for him or her to reflect and pray.

Memorable moments: I loved just seeing my friends every day. Whether at lunch, in advisory, or between classes, my best friends could switch my mood from stressing over a test to belly laughing in a matter of seconds. While we will always stay in touch, nothing will quite be the same as constantly being together.

MAGDALEN DALUGA  Valedictorian, St. Bede Academy, Peru

Parents: Tom and Patricia Daluga

Town: Princeton

Parish: St. Louis, Princeton

College choice: University of Pittsburgh

Anticipated major: Chemical Engineering

High school activities: volleyball, Scholastic Bowl, stage crew, student government, InterAct Club, Worldwide Youth in Science and Engineering (WYSE) Team

Catholic school advantages: Attending a Catholic high school has provided me with opportunities to grow personally and spiritually while progressing with my formal education. Smaller class sizes allowed us to cover more material and our teachers pushed us to think outside the box. I was surrounded by like-minded people that provided inspiration, guidance, and friendship in a very nurturing environment. I could not be more thankful for the four years I spent at St. Bede.

Memorable moments:  I think one of my favorite memories is winning the Scholastic Bowl regional my senior year. Winning the regional title had been our goal all season long, and I was so proud of our team for working together to achieve it. Nothing like a lil’ intellectual butt-kicking!


KAELYN CONDON — Salutatorian, St. Bede Academy, Peru

Parents: Dr. Michael and Christy Condon

Town: Spring Valley

College choice: Illinois State University

Anticipated major: Nursing

High school activities: track (2017-2018 state qualifier and captain); volleyball (2017 captain); student government executive board member, ambassador

Catholic high school advantages: Attending a Catholic school allowed me to obtain an outstanding education in a quality environment. I had the opportunity to be involved in many clubs and sports which enhanced my overall high school experience. I was also able to become friends with students from our sister school in China who I otherwise would have never met.

Memorable moments: I qualified for state in track my junior and senior years at St. Bede Academy. This accomplishment was incredibly meaningful to me because of all the work that my coaches and I dedicated over my four years of high school.

EMILY JEANNE ZOLLARS — Valedictorian, Marquette Academy, Ottawa

Parents: Kevin and Jane Zollars

Town: Earlville

Parish: St. Columba, Ottawa

College choice: Purdue University

Anticipated major: Biology

High school activities: Student Government Association for two years (class representative for both years), Scholastic Bowl, Order of the M (co-president during senior year), Student Ambassadors, Worldwide Youth in Science and Engineering team

Catholic school advantages: Attending a Catholic high school has allowed me to see the life-changing effects living life with God as a major part in it can result in, such as better friendships and relationships with others. I have been able to discover a new satisfaction and happiness in life because attending a Catholic high school has allowed me to form a truly unbreakable bond with God that I know will last a lifetime.

I have been able to learn about various subjects tremendously, but most importantly, I have learned what it means to live a fulfilling life of faith. I will use the knowledge I have gained these past four years and apply it to my life in the future despite not going to a religiously affiliated institution next year.

Memorable moments: One of my most significant memories from high school was our senior retreat that occurred this past year. I regard this as the culminating point of my religious education because it allowed me to truly find God and what it means to live life with Him at the absolute center. I was able to strengthen bonds with my classmates as well as with God. I got to know everyone around me better as well.

Another significant memory I have from high school were all the times that my friends and I were able to bond closer as a group, whether it was when we all got together and hung out or simply at school lunch. I learned to truly appreciate the amazing people that I met and continued to get to know while in high school. I will forever cherish the memory of making the new friends that I did while in high school and those friendships growing as time went by, because each and every one of them has taught me more about myself and life as a whole.


ERIN ELIZABETH SMITH — Salutatorian, Marquette Academy, Ottawa

Parents: Nigel and Sheila Smith

Town: Ottawa

Parish: St. Columba, Ottawa

College choice: Holy Cross College and the University of Notre Dame as a member of the Gateway Program

Anticipated major: Education

High school activities: senior class president, student government, National Honor Society, Photography Club co-president, Scholastic Bowl co-captain, WYSE Team (English sectional champion), Key Club secretary, volleyball, spring musicals, Order of the M, choir, Fine Arts Club, senior retreat leader

Catholic high school advantages: Attending a Catholic high school has helped me grow in my faith by giving me the opportunity to be surrounded by other Catholics. The small, family-like environment has caused me to really get to know those around me. I have been able to experience amazing opportunities, such as going to the March for Life in Washington, D.C., because of attending a Catholic high school.

Memorable moments: A memorable experience for me was being chosen to be a leader for our class’s senior retreat. I, along with seven of my classmates, attended last year’s retreat, which in turn gave us the skills to lead this year’s three-day retreat at Villa Maria in Springfield. The retreat consisted of growing in faith and learning more about our classmates. It was a privilege to be able to help lead this experience for the rest of my class.

ADELYN PULLEY — Valedictorian, Alleman High School, Rock Island

Parents: Roland and Kathy Pulley

Town:  Milan

Parish: St. Ambrose, Milan

College choice: University of Notre Dame

Anticipated major: Finance and Accounting

High school activities: 4-H member (club officer); Horse Bowl and Horse Judging team member; Student Council (secretary, vice president positions); Key Club International;  Sigma Alpha Delta (Students Against Destructive Decisions) – Advisory Board ; National Honor Society; Student Hunger Drive; Cross Country (All-Time Girls School Record Holder, All Conference Runner of the Year, 2A All-State 19th place, MVP for Four Years, Captain); Track (State Meet Qualifier, Team Captain); American Quarter Horse Association National Equestrian Competition; UnityPoint Health-Trinity Volunteer (assisted nurses in Oncology/Neurology Unit); Dance Marathon (logistics and event captain; Blood Drive Chairman; New Kingdom Trailriders Volunteer, assisting at weekly riding lessons for disabled children and veterans

Catholic school advantages: The faith-based atmosphere allows students to learn while strengthening their morals and values. I appreciated being able to share my faith with others and connecting with my classmates on a deeper level.

Memorable moments:  My favorite memory from high school is taking Dr. Schneider’s physics class where he took a complex and difficult subject and made it interesting and exciting to learn. He brought faith and values into the classroom and showed us that we do not have to choose science or faith alone, but they can be combined.

Throughout high school I ran cross country and track and the bonds I have formed with my teammates are something I will dearly miss. Athletics have given me a chance to learn so many skills, participate in an activity I love, and create friendships and memories that will last a lifetime.


BRENDAN HIRD — Salutatorian, Alleman High School, Rock Island

Parents: Kevin and Leslie Hird

Town: Rock Island

Parish: St. Pius X, Rock Island

College choice: Notre Dame Holy Cross College Gateway Program

Anticipated major: Medical Physics

High school activities: cross country, soccer, basketball, baseball, Dance Marathon (registration and finance captain), Student Council (president),  Teens For Tomorrow, National Honor Society

Catholic school advantages:  As I reflect on my 15 years of Catholic education, I realize how much dedication to each student and athlete the faculty, staff, and coaches have. On top of the dedication and outstanding curriculum, I also have appreciated the opportunity to learn, grow, and participate in my faith every single day.

Memorable moments: During my junior year basketball season, my team and I had a conference game against Quincy High School. It had been many years since our school had won a conference game in the competitive Western Big 6 conference. We ended up winning the game against the soon-to-be conference champions. The stands were packed and all of the students stormed the court to celebrate.

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