Students of the Game
There’s little in the way of slacking off for high school athletes. Practices and games delay homework, staying before or after school to make up tests is always a pleasant byproduct, non-school competition can be thrown in, and sleep is that thing you hear is really inviting if you can ever get acquainted with it.
These seven upperclassmen Teen Dream Athletes you are about to meet are not Ferris Buellers with Principal Ed Rooney chasing after them.
Instead, the accomplished athletes personify the best from their high schools. They all adapt, thrive, and somehow redefine multitasking. Within this group are state champions and those who hope to be state champions. There are elite academic achievers. There is next-level talent. And the common thread—besides the fact that they’re each a stellar athlete in their own right—is that each of these kids leads by example.
For the juniors in this crop of Teen Dream Athletes, there’s one more year of hard work yet to be done. For the seniors, life is moving pretty fast. But they’re all making sure to stop and look around once in a while and savor their high school careers as they march to college fields and stadiums and links across the country.
“We recently got our senior scrapbooks. I was going through mine, and it was just like dang, it’s almost over,” says Olathe South football player Scott Gourley. “Then we actually start being on our own. It’s pretty surreal, but at the same time, it’s getting closer and closer.”
Senior , Blue Valley Northwest
Top gun: Lists New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady as an athlete he admires
Field advantage: Has seen game action on Sporting Kansas City’s reserve squad
It only seems appropriate that Eric DeJulio would pull up a chair in Blue Valley Northwest’s commons area in a Sporting Kansas City t-shirt.
DeJulio has been a mainstay in Sporting KC’s youth academies for four years, touring the Midwest over the weekends during pieces of the fall and spring. In addition to providing fine senior leadership for the Huskies, who made it to the 6A state championship game in soccer before losing to Wichita Northwest, DeJulio has competed in indispensable minutes through Sporting’s youth program.
“I’m able to play against more talent, better talent, from all across the country,” he says. “It teaches you how to play against certain types of players, certain types of teams. It gives you a good measure of where you’re at.”
During Sporting’s exhilarating run to the MLS playoffs, DeJulio was there for every home game, cheering maniacally in what he called “an unbelievable atmosphere.” But for the season ahead, DeJulio will have to miss some games when Creighton University will function as his new soccer academy.
“Everything about Creighton really sold me,” DeJulio says, “but the biggest thing is their ability to develop players to play at the next level.”
With outstanding facilities and a huge soccer culture, Creighton is where Sporting defender Seth Sinovic played before him. That’ll work for an eat-sleep-breathe soccer kid like DeJulio.
“I absolutely love it,” says DeJulio. “I absolutely want to give my best every time I step on the field, and I play with a great sense of pride every time I put on my team’s jersey.”
Junior , Blue Valley Southwest
All in the family: Mom played basketball at Pittsburg State; dad played basketball at the University of San Diego
Power surge: Batted .433 last baseball season, leading Southwest in home runs, singles, doubles and RBI
When you’re a six-foot-five-inch, 240-pound junior, you tend to stand out as you wander the halls between classes. But when three-sport star Anthony Miller went to the U.S. Army National Combine in January, where nearly 500 high school football prospects congregated in San Antonio, he could easily blend in.
“It was really eye-opening,” Miller says. “Down there, I just felt like a regular person. I didn’t feel like I was singled out because of my size.
At Blue Valley Southwest, Miller has irrefutably distinguished himself as the school’s best athlete. On the basketball court, he’s a double-double waiting to happen as a formidable post player. On the baseball field, he led the team in several offensive categories and a 2.08 ERA. And on the gridiron, Miller averaged nearly 13 yards a reception, anchored the defensive line and helped the Timberwolves make two playoff appearances in the school’s first two years.
Miller likes being in a program that had to start from scratch.
“You have nothing to lose,” says Miller. “No one expects much from you, and it’s always fun to shock people and feel like you don’t go out with a chip on your shoulder.”
High-profile college football powers are already wise to Miller’s talent. It’s an incredible list, schools with prolific offensive systems like Oregon, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Notre Dame and Arkansas. But Miller wouldn’t be the first in his family to play college sports. His parents were both athletes, and his uncle, former Kansas State basketball star Ed Nealy, won an NBA championship ring with the Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls in 1993.
Senior , Olathe South
Healthy aspirations: Wants to get into strength and conditioning, possibly a doctorate in physical therapy
Gridiron game: Helped Olathe South rush for more than 4,000 yards in 2011
A few months after Olathe South won the 6A football state title, Scott Gourley is still admiring the bling.
As everyone milled around with cookies and refreshments after South’s signing ceremony, the affable offensive lineman sports his championship ring. He proudly wears it wherever he goes and singles out winning state over Wichita Heights in a wild 41-37 victory as the best moment playing for his coach, who happens to be his father, Jeff.
“He overtook my game station in the basement, because he had his laptop hooked up to the computer to watch film,” Gourley says. “It made me want to work hard for him, because he works hard for us.”
The state championship run almost didn’t happen if South couldn’t beat Olathe East by a wide enough margin to wrap the regular season. A closing touchdown drive sealed it.
“You could look around at the huddle,” Gourley says, “and you had this feeling, this calm, that we’re going to get this and we’re going to get the score, and we’re going to go win state.”
One of the school’s Falcon Mentors for underclassmen, Gourley will transition from one team of Falcons to another and play for Air Force. He’ll be the first in his family to attend a service academy.
“I’m really looking forward to getting into the program,” he says. “Football is in my blood. It’s a part of me in pretty much every way. I’m excited to get out there and really get going with the football part of it, but I’m kind of looking forward to the military part of it, because I want to see those challenges that people that know what they’re getting in to face.”
Senior , Blue Valley North
Favorite golfers: Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott
Greens star: Qualified for the 2011 U.S. Junior Amateur and finished T-20
Once he was done being a key cog for Blue Valley North’s best boys’ basketball team since 1997, it was a quick turnaround after spring break for Ross Thornton to clean the grooves on his irons and begin his quest to win the state title in golf. During eighth grade and freshman year, his aspirations didn’t really revolve around the golf course.
“I’d always kind of planned on playing college basketball, I think,” he says, “until I stopped growing and I wasn’t bigger than anyone anymore.”
Thornton is certainly looking to play big as the leader of a Mustang golf team that doesn’t lose to anybody. Thornton finished second in the East Kansas League tournament and tied for 12th at state last year. Golf fans remember the “better than most” call by NBC’s Gary Koch of Tiger Woods’ incredible serpentine putt on the 17th hole when he won the 2001 Players Championship. Well, Thornton wants to be better than everybody on both leaderboards soon.
A solid ball-striker who cites course management as a strength, Thornton will play next year on the golf team at the University of Colorado. The Buffaloes’ arrival in the Pac 12 Conference has raised the stakes, coming into a league steeped with tradition that boasts Woods (Stanford) and Phil Mickelson (Arizona State) as past stars.
“I definitely feel like I’m putting myself in a better position to improve,” says Thornton, who will study finance at CU. “You’re going to be practicing a lot more, and you’re going to have access to a lot better resources, like swing coaches and other people that know a lot more than you do.”
junior , Blue Valley West
Like father, like son: Dad also won a state debate championship
Mathlete: Favorite course in school is Calculus BC
He doesn’t put up monster stats and doesn’t classify himself as naturally gifted in basketball, but Blue Valley West bench player Chris Birzer is still a state champion in entirely disparate circles.
On January 15, 2012, Birzer won the 6A debate title with senior partner Ideen Saiedian. The winning topic’s resolution was that the United States federal government should substantially increase its exploration and/or development of space beyond the earth’s mesosphere.
“It was one of those situations where the judges were all deciding and it took like 30 minutes in finals. And then the guy that was hosting the tournament announced the decision on a 2 to 1,” says Birzer. “And then they said it was for the affirmative, and we’re just shocked. It’s one of those things that’s kind of cool to be able to say you’re a state champion.”
Birzer, who’s played for West coach Donnie Campbell since he was a sixth-grader on his developmental teams, is still a vital behind-the-scenes player for the Jaguars. He’s proven he can take one for the team, too. In practice at the beginning of January, Birzer broke his nose and needed to play with a face-guard that would’ve made NBA veteran Rip Hamilton proud.
Along with on-court success and repeating at debate next year, he says he’d like to finish in the top of his class at West.
“I don’t want to ever think back to high school and think that I could’ve gotten all A’s if I would’ve worked harder,” Birzer says. “I want to get all A’s and know that I did my best to do that.”
Senior , Olathe East
Flying high: Has interest in aviation and has started taking flight lessons
Leader of the pack: Previously participated in Olathe Youth Congress
You name it, Adam Epting participates in it.
Olathe East’s do-everything student body president is also vice president for Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA), one of five students selected for Leadership Olathe in 2011, and an offensive lineman who loved creating seams for John Kelsh, his best friend since the age of two.
But his work as the chairman for East’s association with First Downs for Down Syndrome has had a massive effect on him. It’s an organization that has partnered with the school for more than a decade. Epting has always had affection for Downs syndrome kids, so he saw a need and stepped up. At last count, they raised $9,200 for First Downs this season.
“We’ve gotten a ridiculous amount of feedback, because not only did we raise the money for them, but we had a couple different occasions where we either took some of the kids from Olathe East on the football field and let them do the coin toss, or we had one child who came and helped guest coach for a game,” Epting says. “It’s the smiles you see on those kids’ faces that you don’t need any more feedback than that. That covers it all.”
Epting won’t be putting on the pads in college for the first time since elementary school, but he plans on studying business and law at the University of Arkansas. He credits his dad with absorbing him in the business world.
“He owns automotive shops, so I’ve grown up in small businesses. I always thought it would be cool to get into that,” Epting says. “And as time’s gone on, I’ve realized I’d like to get into business, but I’d like to go into large business rather than owning a small business. So my dad started that whole thing of, you can do whatever you put your mind to.”
Senior , Saint Thomas Aquinas
Musical interlude: Likes playing guitar when not studying or competing
Net play: Enjoys club volleyball during the track and field season
With astronomical grades and her name in the athletic record books at Saint Thomas Aquinas, Laynie Timmons is okay with calling herself a perfectionist.
“I like things done the right way,” Timmons says. “And so I think that’s always driven me to try to be one of the best athletes, to try to be one of the best volleyball players.”
Equipped with a mean overhand serve in the fifth grade, her future in volleyball was inescapable, driven by two older sisters who played and a mom who coached the game. The senior middle hitter is second on the Saints’ all-time blocks list.
But Timmons also holds the school’s triple jump record. She wants to improve on her second-place tie in the high jump and third-place finish in the triple jump at last year’s state track meet and take first in both. Just getting to third in that event has taught Timmons a thing or two about determination.
“A girl had bumped me down to about fourth place with one of her jumps,” says Timmons, “and I had one more jump. I was really, really sore and tired. But I just put everything into that last jump, and I didn’t know I could do that, even though I was so tired. I didn’t realize I could push it, and then I got back into third place. I was really proud of myself for that.”
Timmons is also on St. Thomas Aquinas’ yearbook staff and the S.T.A.P.L.E. team (Saint Thomas Aquinas Prayer, Liturgy, and Evangelization), which helps set up masses at Aquinas. After graduation, she’ll play volleyball for Drury University in Springfield, Missouri.