by Jim Boyle
Elk River High School’s 2017 graduation ceremony was a celebration of success.
More than 380 students collected their diplomas after a year marked by state championships and high honors in athletics and a wide array of extracurricular activities. Applause was frequent and encouraged at commencement exercises for Elk seniors.
The event was also a chance for speakers to mark the beginning of a new chapter and suggest that what the Class of 2017 has accomplished so far is only the tip of the iceberg.
“I feel confident that whatever life throws at us we will overcome it,” senior class president Art Fosse said.
Interim Superintendent Bruce Watkins offered his thanks for the way he was welcomed at Elk River High School when he was first hired, and his first assignment was to address water damage at Elk River High School just before the start of the year.
He only had to watch Principal Terry Bizal and his team for few hours to know Bizal, his administration, the activities department and school staff there at the school would navigate the incident beautifully.
“During the crisis, Principal Bizal said publicly, ‘We can do this, and we will have a good year.’ ”
And, boy, did they ever.
Brad Olson, a 1991 graduate of Elk River High School who was chosen by students as the staff member to speak, said the class will be remembered as one of the greatest classes – if not the greatest – that have ever passed through the halls of the school.
“You have made our community very proud and have sparked a new interest in greatness and pride,” Olson said.
The social studies teacher – who was on the 1990 Elk River football team that finished as the runner-up to Anoka in the state title football game and was also a state tournament wrestling entrant that year – encouraged students to celebrate and be proud of what they have accomplished. He reminded them they all worked very hard to be there in the high school gym graduating that night.
“Our society sometimes labels those who celebrate as cocky or bragging,” he said. “Our society is too negative and makes you feel guilty about success. Our society is wrong.
“Instead of hiding our success, we need to show the world. It was fun watching these seniors push each other, challenge each other and support each other.”
Olson recognized it would be impossible to recount all of the successes as they were too numerous, but he tried to highlight some of the higher profiles ones.
He started with Team 125, which was the 125th varsity football team to take the field for Elk River High School. The team finished 13-0 on the year, giving coach Steve Hamilton his 100th win along the way and capping the year off with the program’s first state championship.
Sam Gibas, one of the stars of the team, found himself in the running for Mr. Football.
For Elk River girls basketball, it was all about Day 125 in their drive for a state title. It was on their 125th day of the season the Elks finished off a 32-0 season and won the program’s first state title in school history. Gabi Haack, one of the team’s stars, won Miss Basketball.
Boys hockey did not advance to state, losing to the eventual state champion Grand Rapids in section play, but still had a great season. Nick Perbix, one of the stars of the team, found himself up for Mr. Hockey.
There were other athletic accomplishments. Boys track won its first conference title in 20 years and also won a section championship.
“And Chris Udalla won the state championship in triple jump,” Olson said.
Boys tennis won its 10th conference championship in 12 years. Boys golf won its section and competed at state, while the girls golf team won a conference title.
But it wasn’t just athletic fields, arenas and on courts. It was also success in extracurriculars. The Elk River High School culinary team won state and finished seventh at nationals. The speech team won its section and topped it off with a masterful performance by Dylan Clausen to win his second state championship individually.
The 728 Cadets won three state championships in a row and had the state competition flag retired in their honor.
The band program had two seniors receive best in sight at their yearly competition. Wind symphony and concert band received superior ratings.
The National Honor Society logged more than 6,000 volunteer hours throughout the community.
The high school’s “amazing” art program had five pieces of art selected to be displayed in the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy, 10 students had work published in the Minnesota School Board’s Association Journal and there were two Gold Key portfolios, eight Gold Key ceramics, and one Gold Key drawing scholastic awards.
DECA raised more than $3,000 for Tackle Cancer and had 12 students qualify for nationals.
Hayley Ackerman, speaking on behalf of 12 Elk River High School top honor students who achieved a 4.0 or higher GPA, humbly said she was no more qualified than peers to address the class. The accomplished scholar and member of the state championship basketball team said success can be defined many ways, but at Elk River High School she has found it to have much deeper meaning than winning the big game.
“Our class helped start Elk Buddies, a group that gets together with special education kids once a week,” she said. “Our class was also very involved in National Honor Society, a club that serves the community.”
Ackerman noted she has seen countless acts of selflessness, like “a teammate giving up a starting position, captains giving their bats to fellow teammates, students going out of their way tutor a classmate, athletes coaching and mentoring younger athletes, a student baking a favorite dessert for an ill teacher.”
Ackerman said the Class of 2017’s goal should be to make the world a better place than they found it, even if it’s just to change one life.
She quoted Denzel Washinton, who once said: “At the end of the day it’s not about what you have or even what you have accomplished. It’s about who you have lifted up, who you’ve made better. It’s about what you have given back.”
Ackerman concluded: “Our legacy in the record books may be a few state titles, but I believe our lasting legacy will be our selflessness and the positive impact we had on those around us.”
Watkins encouraged graduates to be players in life and to use their influence for the greater good.
“My desire for your future success comes from knowing that the world is always changing, and that you can influence those changes positively.”