Catholic high school valedictorians and salutatorians of Class of 2019 profiled

Following are 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 Class of 2019 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 are memorable.”


Christopher Russell / Valedictorian

Parents: Dr. Bob and Lisa Russell

City of residence: Bloomington

Parish: St. Patrick Church of Merna, Bloomington

College choice: University of Notre Dame

Anticipated major: Mechanical Engineering

High school activities: swimming, jazz band, concert band, Scholastic Bowl, Boy Scouts, spring musical

Catholic school advantages: Catholic education provides a high quality educational experience within the context of a nurturing Catholic family.

Memorable moments: Winning homecoming junior year because it was the first time our class came together.


Emily Bready / Salutatorian

Parents: Thomas and Mary Bready

City: Bloomington

Parish: Holy Trinity, Bloomington

College choice: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Anticipated major: Math and Computer Science

High school activities: National Honor Society, Mu Alpha Theta, varsity tennis, piano lessons, Interact Club, Vita Christi, volunteering at St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry

Catholic school advantages: Attending a Catholic high school made it so much easier for me to stay oriented towards my faith and keep God at the center of my life. It helped me see the greater meaning of working hard and striving to be a good person, beyond just getting the grades and college acceptance letters. I was able to grow in my faith in an environment where doing so was encouraged, unlike at a public high school. I’m grateful to have had such an amazing and rewarding experience during some of the most important years of my life.

Memorable moments: One experience that I will never forget was winning homecoming junior year. Typically, out of the four high school classes, the senior class always racks up the most points in all the games and competitions we have against each other. But my junior year, we “broke the system” and came out with more points than the seniors. We attribute our success to our teamwork and determination. We bonded as a class more than we ever had before, and it was really nice to see us all come together and focus on a goal.

Another powerful memory I have is attending the March for Life in Washington, D.C. A busload of my classmates and I drove all the way there and braved the wintry conditions to go fight for the right to life for those who cannot speak for themselves. Seeing the hundreds of thousands of other people marching with us was really empowering and gave us hope for the future. Marching for life allowed me to live out my faith in an active way and really motivates me to seek out other ways to stand up for what is right.


Lia Znaniecki / Valedictorian

Parents: Jay and Carol Znaniecki

City: Champaign

Parish: St. Matthew, Champaign

College choice: Bradley University, Peoria

Anticipated major: Social Studies Education

High school activities: volleyball, basketball manager, soccer, Drama Club, National Honor Society, Spanish National Honor Society, madrigals, Spanish Club

Catholic school advantages: Among the greatest advantages of attending a Catholic high school are the connections you make with not only those in your own class, but the great friendships you form with those in every grade. It seems like the Catholic school experience just brings everyone so much closer together. Also, I think we are cared about by teachers and seen less as objects meant for success and more as unique individuals both inside and outside the classroom.

Memorable moments: One of the most memorable experiences from high school was the state championship volleyball game in 2018. Although I was not playing at that time, this was such an amazing experience to be a part of. Our whole school came together to cheer on the volleyball team and the energy from everyone in the stands that day was just amazing. I was so proud of my school that day. Another great memory was attending a retreat for juniors and seniors known as LOGOS in the fall of my senior year. LOGOS is such a life-changing experience and helped me to form so many friendships that I would never have discovered were it not for that retreat.


Dana Hergenrother / Salutatorian

Parents: Dianne and Paul Hergenrother

City: Champaign

Parish: St. Matthew, Champaign

College choice: University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana

Anticipated major: Biology

High school activities: soccer co-captain, junior high assistant basketball coach, CCD teacher, National Honor Society (vice president), altar server, house leader

Catholic school advantages: I loved going to a Catholic high school because I got to know the teachers on a more personal level than just the classroom thanks to things like adoration, retreats, and extracurricular activities.

Memorable moments: As part of my Spanish class this year we went to a Spanish-speaking dual-language elementary school and organized games and talked to the second-graders. It was super cool to see the relationships between the kids and the mentors grow as we both got more comfortable speaking and playing with each other and showed the power language has to connect people.

I also loved my experiences on the soccer team. The family atmosphere my coach (James Johnson) created was something so special. I am thankful just to have been a part of it.


Jasmine Labayog / Valedictorian

Parents: Dorothy Labayog and Jo-Mel Labayog

City: Danville

Parish: St. Paul, Danville

College choice: Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, Terre Haute, Indiana

Anticipated major: Computer Engineering

High school activities: archery (5th-12th grade), Scholastic Bowl, Toppettes dance team, soccer, class president, National Honor Society, Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, Students Taking A New Direction (STAND)

Catholic school advantages: The people you’re around and the atmosphere you grow up in shapes the kind of person you become. Therefore, attending a Catholic high school, where people share the same ideals and beliefs as you, will keep you on the right path during the harder years of growing up. Attending a faith-based school also means your faith remains a constant in your life, guiding you in everything you do, including your education.

Memorable moments: One thing about my high school experience that I won’t soon forget is the cultural exposure I gained through both the numerous foreign exchange students I befriended and the French teaching assistants that instructed us year to year. These interactions remain memorable to me because through talking to them you learn about their culture and the differences between your lives, but you also get to see that although you may be from opposite sides of the world, you can have so much in common.

Another significant memory comes from archery during my junior year when I shot a 291/300 at the state tournament and the eastern national tournament. In the state tournament I placed 5/990 and 119/14,139 in the eastern national tournament. These moments are memorable to me because after spending seven years on the team improving my abilities in archery, my efforts paid off.


Sarah Craig / Salutatorian

Parents: John and Michele Craig

City: Danville

Parish: St. Paul, Danville

College choice: Loyola University Chicago

Anticipated major: Biology and Spanish

High school activities: volleyball, cross country, track and field, student government, National Honor Society

Catholic school advantages: At a Catholic high school, students are not only encouraged to make themselves better, but we are also encouraged to be servants of our communities and improve the world around us through volunteering and being active citizens.

Memorable moments: My most significant memory is when we visited a special education classroom as part of our senior class initiative to spend our class funds volunteering instead of going on a senior trip. In the classroom we interacted with more than 20 students with varying disabilities and made snacks and blankets with them. I’ve never seen so many people smile, both children and adults alike.


Liam Dougherty / Valedictorian

Parents: Edmund and Molly Dougherty

City: Ottawa

Parish: St. Patrick, Ottawa

College choice: Augustana College, Rock Island

Anticipated major: Biology/ Pre-Veterinary Medicine

High school activities: Student Council (vice president), Order of the M Ambassador, Key Club, Crazy Cru (captain), National Honor Society, Fine Arts Club, Worldwide Youth in Science and Engineering, football, baseball, basketball

Catholic school advantages: Attending a Catholic school is a privilege that not everyone gets to have. Catholic education is something that is important in my life. Being able to learn more about my faith every day for the past four years has been one of my favorite parts of school. Attending Marquette has allowed me to be able to be close to others who value their faith as much as I do.

Memorable moments: Going to state back-to-back in baseball is a memory that I will never forget. It has never been done in our school’s history and I love being a part of such a great team. We are hoping to make our school proud and win our school its first state championship this year!

Another memory that is significant was our senior retreat. During this retreat, I came closer to many of the people that I had known for four years. It was also a time where I grew closer to God and I had a lot of fun memories during the retreat.


Kendra Zitt / Salutatorian

Parents: Don and Colleen Zitt

City: Newark

Parish: St. Mary, Plano

College choice: University of Colorado-Boulder

Anticipated major: Integral Physiology/Biology

High school activities: Student Government, Order of the M, Academic Team, Worldwide Youth in Science and Engineering, Phi Theta Kappa Honors Society, National Honor Society, Student of the Month-March, senior retreat leader, Via Lux (Bible study group) coordinator

Catholic school advantages: It creates a special community that is united by their beliefs. I have come to grow greatly in my faith by having peers that want to grow as well. It helps that we can support and encourage one another. Weekly Masses, adoration, and opportunities to attend confession is something that has helped me and allowed me to take my faith more seriously.

Memorable moments: The most significant memory I take away from my Marquette experience has to be senior retreat. Being there with all my classmates and getting to know one another on a deeper level really bonded our class, and I couldn’t have asked for a better way to end the year.


Leah Anderson / Valedictorian

Parents: Shelley Anderson and Kevin Anderson

City: Peoria

Parish: St. Vincent de Paul, Peoria

College choice: Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio

Anticipated major: English or History

High school activities: soccer (team captain), Key Club (vice president), basketball manager, Lumen Christi, Student Ambassador, All-School Council

Catholic school advantages: I would not have been able to participate in my faith with a mature and developed understanding if I didn’t attend PND. PND gave me the ability to become responsible for and excited about my relationship with Christ. Attending a Catholic school as a young adult has given me a strong foundation in the faith that grade school alone was not able to cement.

Memorable moments: My greatest extracurricular passion is the PND soccer team, and I have been so lucky to be a part of this close-knit, successful program for four years. My teammates are hardworking and hilarious. Every post-season tournament with these girls is so special and will be something I remember my whole life.

I also have an amazing group of best friends who I spend nearly all of my time with. We love karaoke and dance parties, so school dances with them always felt like our night to shine. Prom and homecoming dances with them will be surely missed.


Mylene Evangelista / Salutatorian

Parents: Dr. Roque Evangelista and Dr. Milagros Hojilla-Evangelista

City: Peoria

Parish: Holy Family, Peoria

College choice: University of Iowa, Iowa City

Anticipated major: Biomedical Engineering

High school activities: Concert-Marching-Pep Bands, Scholastic Team, Drama Club backstage crew; Latin Club; Women’s Leadership Team; Tri-M Music Honor Society

Catholic school advantages: I think the fact that the teaching of theology is mandatory for all students is very important. Regardless of a student’s religion, knowing religious views helps develop a deeper understanding of philosophy and morality that you just can’t get on your own. The ability to find unity and a family through our common faith also makes it much easier to adjust to high school. Despite being in a completely new environment, knowing that it’s a Catholic school makes it feel more familiar, like a home.

Memorable moments: Every year for my first three years of high school, the Irish Marching Band took one day in the fall to drive up to DeKalb to join other Illinois high school bands in playing a halftime show with Northern Illinois University’s Marching Huskies. In the free time between practicing with all the bands in the morning and the football game in the afternoon, we set up our instruments in the stands and had a Battle of the Bands-type showdown where each high school band showed off their most impressive tunes. It was always a challenge learning college-level music, but the payoff of playing for a packed football stadium was worth it every time.

Last year, my Latin teacher hung up a poster on her classroom wall entitled “Life Lessons From Miss Pinheiro’s Classroom,” which had 52 one- or two-sentence bits of wisdom that she believed were important for her students to know, though not always classroom knowledge. (My favorite is “Just because a saint did it doesn’t necessarily mean you should do it,” citing St. Nicholas punching a heretic as one example.) My class and the senior class at the time asked her for a life lesson at the beginning of each class, and with each life lesson, we got a story. We asked Miss Pinheiro to write a book based off her poster, to which she said she would try. As her parting gift to my senior class, we each got a copy of her self-published book, named after the poster that started it all.


Alex Dittmar / Co-Valedictorian

Parents: Richard and Mida Dittmar

City: Oglesby

Parish: St. Valentine, Peru

College choice: University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana

Anticipated major: Biology

High school activities: Student Council (vice president), Scholastic Bowl (team captain), peer tutor, Interact Club (secretary), tennis, Academic Challenge, St. Valentine Choir, altar server at St. Bede and St. Valentine

Catholic school advantages: Thanks to the unique opportunities afforded to students by Catholic high schools, the entire person, both spiritually and mentally, is formed. Lessons on morality and vocations in my religion classes have taught me how to live a virtuous life that is pleasing to God. Through their kindness, charity, and dedication, my teachers have provided a Christ-like example of how to build up the Kingdom of God. And, I have been able to freely practice my Catholic faith and grow closer to God in the process. I am eternally grateful for my experience at a Catholic high school.

Memorable moments: My favorite high school memories are the literary discussions during my English class with Mrs. Jobst. All my peers were engaged in the lesson and always willing to respond to questions. My teacher was very enjoyable and insightful. Though the class posed great challenges, I learned a great deal from my experience and will always remember it fondly.


Gianna Elias / Co-Valedictorian

Parents: Dan and Gina Elias

City: Spring Valley

College choice: University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Anticipated major: Bioengineering

High school activities: Worldwide Youth in Science and Engineering, Interact Club, Scholastic Bowl, Ambassadors, Spanish Club, Venturing, Bruinomics, golf (captain), softball (captain)

Catholic school advantages: Two of the greatest advantages of a Catholic high school are the family-like atmosphere and the comparative religions class my senior year. As soon as I stepped onto campus my freshman year, I felt at home. The close-knit atmosphere helped me thrive as a friend, student, and athlete. The comparative religions class my senior year opened my eyes to the world around me, and gave me the knowledge of other cultures and beliefs, preparing me for my next steps and future.

Memorable moments: My two most significant memories at St. Bede were traveling to Greece with my fellow classmates and going to state in softball my senior year. They were both life-changing experiences. Greece opened up my eyes to the world and allowed me to see a different part of myself. Going to state with my softball team helped me appreciate teamwork and the support of my community.


Ryan Edwall / Salutatorian

Parents: Ryan and Angelyn Edwall

City: Utica

Parish: St. Joseph, Peru

College of Choice: University of Iowa

Anticipated major: Electrical Engineering: Computer Track

High school activities: Work (cashier at Walmart in Peru), cross country, track, tennis, Scholastic Bowl, theater (spring musicals and Stage 212, a local performing arts center), chorus, Lectio Divina, Interact Club, Heritage Club, private vocal lessons, St. Joseph Parish Choir, St. Bede Variety Show

Catholic school advantages: By attending a Catholic school, I have had the opportunity to truly immerse myself in my faith. I have come to understand what it means to a part of a Catholic community. I never would have become an altar server or choir member at my parish if I had not attended St. Bede Academy. Without the assistance of a Catholic high school, I would not have upheld the same core values that I hold today, which makes me all the more grateful to have attended St. Bede.

Memorable moments: Singing a solo at the St. Bede Variety Show was an experience I never will forget. It marked a monumental leap in my character and my self-confidence. Although I was known as the shy kid who always had trouble speaking in front of people, I got up on stage and performed to the best of my abilities when others could not. This was a very empowering moment for me. However, I didn’t do this alone. I had support from my several of my friends in addition to my private vocal coach.


Alexandra Cajigal / Co-valedictorian

Parents: Arthur and Colleen Cajigal

City: Davenport, Iowa

Parish: Sacred Heart, Moline

College choice: United States Military Academy in West Point, New York

Anticipated major: Kinesiology

High school activities: cross-country, cheerleading, track, Dance Marathon, National Honor Society

Catholic school advantages: Not only is the curriculum faith-filled, the teachers and staff are too. It is a great feeling knowing that there are people at the school there for you whether to specifically help with your faith or just to help in general. The teachers at a Catholic school want to make sure you are the best person you can be and are always there to help achieve that goal.

Memorable moments:  Some of my most significant memories are from when I went to the state finals track meet starting when I was a sophomore. What made this experience really special was getting to room with my best friend Ali. I also loved hanging out with my teammates in the dorms and getting closer over the four days we were there. Even though not every year resulted in a medal, it was still some of my most fun memories of my high school experience because of the close bond that I developed with my friends while we were there.


Sydney Heller / Co-Valedictorian

Parents: Susan and Christopher Heller

City: East Moline

Parish: St. John’s Lutheran Church

College choice: University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana

Anticipated major: Mechanical Engineering

High school activities: National Honor Society (treasurer), Key Club/Pathfinders (co-director of studies), Dance Marathon (co-captain of marketing and media), Rock Island Rotary (Junior Rotarian), Illinois Council of Teachers of Mathematics (two time state qualifier), Worldwide Youth in Science and Engineering, library aide/volunteer, student hunger drive, theater, Emeralds Dance Team

Catholic school advantages: Attending a Catholic high school has taught me how to navigate an imperfect world with faith, morality, and love. An environment of students with shared beliefs and ideals lends strength to each of its members in the face of animosity to their faith, and the common religious views among them formulate intimate bonds unlike any other. Receiving an education at a Catholic institution also fosters individuals with goals oriented towards justice, service to others, and working towards the common good.

Memorable moments: To begin with, any time I have spent in a theatrical production is unforgettable because I have fallen in love with the power of performing. I am fascinated with theater’s ability to move people in profound ways and its capacity to cause people to reevaluate the way they think.

Another significant memory was the first time I served on a committee for Dance Marathon — a major fundraiser for the Iowa Children’s Hospital — and realized the true impact that could be made even by just one person with a vision.


Olivia Manternach / Salutatorian

Parents: Deborah and Rick Rogan (Guardians), Aaron Manternach (Father)

City: Sherrard

Parish: St. Pius X, Rock Island

College choice: University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota

Anticipated major: International Relations

High school activities: Ambassadors (president), Pathfinders (co-director), Key Club, National Honor Society, Dance Marathon (captain of marketing and media), Worldwide Youth in Science and Engineering, cheerleading, Emeralds Dance Team, theater.

Catholic school advantages: In a Catholic high school there are certain opportunities you cannot find at a public school. Every day I get to live out my faith and grow in my relationship with God. The teachers are always willing to extend a helping hand to the students and care about all of us individually. Catholic schools foster an environment of respect and love that creates well-rounded individuals who are prepared to succeed in their goals and spread their faith to the world.

Memorable moments: In high school I was very involved in extracurricular activities, but the one that brought me the most joy was the Alleman musical productions. Working and putting on a show with my closest friends was gratifying and exhilarating, especially when we performed “Grease” my junior year. All the long hours of rehearsals really paid off when the crowd gave us a standing ovation at the end of one of our sold-out shows.

Another activity that comes in close second for me is Dance Marathon. All of the money we have raised over the past four years really astounds me. I remember my sophomore year when they revealed that our school of 400 raised more than $42,000 for Iowa Children’s Hospital, I was shocked but so proud of our tiny school for making a huge difference in the lives of so many.

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