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 IMG_8383BY JEFF FALK

It’s taken on a life of its own. But it’s a good life. Because it’s a celebration of life.

Or more specifically, growth and maturation. In many ways, it’s like an early graduation party for student-athletes.

If you called it a ‘rite of passage’, you’d get no argument here.

Over the past decade or so, this thing we call ‘National Signing Day’ has grown by leaps and bounds locally. Across winter-ravaged Lebanon County, we celebrated this year’s holiday on Thursday – with balloons, punch and cookies and by taking a break from classes.

IMG_8375And what would a holiday be without family and friends?

But the things celebrated are pure. Hard work, dedication, accomplishments.

It also provided us a time to reflect – on what was and what will be, and not so much about what could’ve been. We found out what our student-athletes can do in high school, now let’s see how they fare collegiately?

IMG_8367In many ways, Thursday was a first step, and a last step.

“I’m just really excited and honored to be able to play at the next level,” said Haleigh Echard, a senior soccer player headed to Penn State, from Cedar Crest High School’s LGI room (that’s Large Group Instruction to you and I). “I kind of want to go to college right now. It’s really exciting to see the support I have around me. It helps me do the best I can.”

IMG_8389“I know it’s going to be a difficult transition,” said Gabby Boehmer, another Falcon 12th-grader headed to a Division One soccer program, the University of Maryland – Baltimore County. “I’m working hard to get better. I need to get better to compete at the next level. I’m anxious to see how it works out.”

“This is what I worked my whole life for,” said Mark Pyles, a Lebanon High senior who will play Division One-AA football at Bucknell. “This has been my dream since I was young. Now it’s paying off. I feel great.”

Not sure how much signing actually goes on on ‘National Signing Day’. But the commitment is real.

By placing their ‘John Hancocks’ on the dotted line, local student-athletes are firming up verbal commitments and entering into a written and binding contract that will profoundly affect the next four years of their lives. It is the most important signature they have made as young adults, but certainly not their last ones.

IMG_8349“That’s a lot of money for signing my name,” said Pyles, who will have huge parts of his education paid for by his athletic grant-in-aid. “I had a great time at Lebanon. I had a great season. But I’m ready to go to Bucknell and achieve more.”

“It’s exciting,” said Boehmer. “And you’re getting a ton of responsibility. We have to learn to be responsible. But we also have to learn how to not be weighed down with our responsibilities.”

“I know they’re asking a lot of me,” said Echard, “and in return, I have to give it to them.”

IMG_8380Joining Echard and Boehmer in their matriculation will be: classmates Jess Zavadak, who will be playing soccer at Juniata College; Sherry Moore, who will be getting her kicks at Penn State-Altoona; lacrosse player Annika Harder, who’s headed to Millersville University; Shyanne Shank, who’s off to play volleyball at Goldey-Beacom; senior signal-caller Gage Ocker, who’s headed to Division Two Shippensburg; Devon Lutz, another football player, on his way to McDaniel College; reigning Lancaster-Lebanon cross country champion Daniel Neiswender, who will ply his trade at Bloomsburg University; runner extraordinaire Chad Bomgarder, who’s on his way to Albright; track and field athlete Brandon Henriquez, who’s going to Penn State-Berks; thinclad Jason Louis, who was on Penn State-Harrisburg’s radar; and Jared Brandy, who will compete in track and field at Lock Haven.

IMG_8388“I wanted to pick a top-level program,” said Echard, a national-level soccer star. “I didn’t want it to be easy. I see myself growing as a player and becoming a young woman. And being the best I can be.”

“I’m really excited,” said Boehmer. “I think it’s going to be a great experience. But I’m also nervous to go off and play and meet new people. You can tell we’ve got tons of support from our school. I think it encourages us to do well when we go to college, and helps us get excited about playing our sport.”

Meanwhile, almost simultaneously at Palmyra High School’s ‘Senior Athlete Recognition Day’, the Cougars acknowledged yet another field hockey-heavy recruited class. Palmyra is sending a total of eleven student-athletes off to the next level, five of whom will play field hockey.

IMG_8347Head coach Kristi Costello’s proteges include: goalie Nicole Berger, who’s on her way to Delaware to be a Blue Hen; Haley Bova, the newest member of the Central Michigan program; Megan Miller, now a Richmond Spider; Kendall Kreider, the latest LaSalle Explorer; and Megan Soucy, who’s taking her slick skills to Slippery Rock. But perhaps the most notable matriculating Cougar is Maddie Good, who will fulfill an earlier commitment to Division One Stony Brook’s women’s soccer program.

Palmyra swimmer Irene Hess is headed to Ursinus’ pool. Cougar lacrosse competitor Riley Litman will play the same at Marywood, as will classmate Sam Wasson, at Mary Washington. Soccer standout Kameron Bush will test the waters at Arcadia, while Mitchell Sauley will take his bat and glove to Frederick.

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