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When Kelso wrestler Riley Harper and the rest of his team learned they would be crowned academic state champions, it wasn’t a surprise.

They all had good grade-point averages and they all knew it.

What surprised Harper, though, is that Kelso brought home five academic state champions between fall and winter, more than any school during that span.

The Scotties had a terrific year on their various competition surfaces, with state berths in football, softball and a state runner-up finish in wrestling, but their greatest achievements this year have been in the classroom.

The Hilanders’ cross country squad, along with the boys’ basketball and wrestling teams, and the girls’ volleyball and wrestling teams combined to bring home five Washington Interscholastic Activities Association academic champion honors this year.

“We knew that our teachers are doing good things, so to see it start to pay off in that manner is awesome,” Kelso athletic director Len Hiatt said. “Obviously we’ve got a great group of kids that are working hard, both in the classroom and on the sports fields. It’s what you want, obviously, you know they call them student-athletes for a reason. These kids are really living that and it’s fun to see.”

A state academic champion is crowned by having the highest team GPA in the state among each particular sport and each program classification.

It’s an even more impressive feat when considering the success on the track, mat or floor.

Christian Freund became a 138-pound state wrestling champion and Kelso finished second at the Mat Classic. Bryce Miller and Jordan Miller earned runner-up spots as well while Kelso brought 21 wrestlers to state between the boys’ and girls’ programs.

Harper believes there is a correlation between doing well on the mat and in the classroom.

“I think the two things require a lot of the same things,” Harper said. “Hard work, effort, putting in the time. In order to do well at anything, you have to put in the time.”

The Lassies volleyball squad posted a positive winning percentage and went 8-2 in the Greater St. Helens 3A League. Both basketball teams fell short of qualifying for the state tournament, but posted league records good enough for second in the GSHL 3A.

“I think it’s a school-wide thing, to be honest. The administration puts an emphasis on that,” Kelso basketball coach Joe Kinch said. “There’s an emphasis on education in place that really makes it so that kids know they are expected to do well academically, and they do.”

Student first

Kelso is encouraging academic success with their athletes more than athletic success, which isn’t always the case.

“We do put the student first,” Hiatt said, “and our teachers are connecting with our kids. Come to one of our track meets. It’s all volunteer teachers that are out there supporting the kids. Our teachers are incredible and it’s paying off.”

Not just teachers at the high school, but community members as well support the program any way they can.

“We’ve got staff members volunteering to do the scoreboard like Gunnar Guttormsen, Scott Sims volunteering to do the book,” Hiatt said. ”Those two are district employees, but neither one works at the high school. It’s just a ‘We are Kelso’ thing, and they are Kelso. It’s a culture that, I don’t know when it started, but it’s something you don’t see everywhere.”

That’s just part of the reason Kelso has been the recipient of a state-high five academic champions this year. Interlake, out of Bellevue, also had five in the academic calendar.

“Our coaches are really understanding about going into classes and doing our work, and then once we’re done we’ll go back to practice,” three-sport athlete Turner Joy said. “We’d go into class after school and do quizzes and stuff, and once we finished, then we’d go back to practice. Our coaches really wanted us to keep our grades up and they showed us the support for it.”

Staying late

When athletes begin their study hall session, they compete there. And when the basketball team discovered how close they were to being academic state champions, another level of determination entered the fold.

Student-athletes are to attend a study hall, and when combined with some peer pressure to perform just as well in the classroom as the field, the results have emerged.

“I think across the board we have a really good group of kids coming through,” Kinch said. “Taking care of business in the classroom has been there for a long time, but this may be a coincidence having five academic state champs, because they’ve always worked hard in the classroom.”

Kelso has been honored before, as the WIAA has distinguished them as academic state champions four times in the last five school years. The girls’ wrestling team won the award in 2012 and ’13, the boys’ wrestling team won in 2012, and the cross-country team was honored in 2015.

One of the major reasons Kelso has had so much success in the classroom and the field this year, according to Hiatt and Kinch, is they have a core this year that is truly unique.

Academics come easier for some than others, though, and even brainiacs have to dive into the books.

That’s what Harper did before school, or after, with pre-calculus teacher Russ Rambo.

“I would come into his class before school during the season,” Harper said. “When the season ended, I would go in to study after. He would stay as long as needed.”

Sometimes that would be 3-4 hours, not an uncommon occurrence for an advanced math student.

“I know our teachers really care about how well you do,” Joy said. “Also our coaches enforce us to have good grades. They say school comes first and you should have good grades.”

It’s caused student-athletes like Joy to seek out another academic state champion honor, just as she would hope for a state title for the basketball team.

“It’s really cool to have that star athlete (award) in the academic side,” Joy said. “To have that over some people is pretty cool.”

Hiatt, in his first year as Kelso’s athletic director, has dealt with numerous uncommon problems. Rainouts galore, more snow days than normal, and being a first year AD, but the educational infection spreading through the Scotties’ athletic department is one he welcomes with open arms.

“Kelso is a special place that you really have to experience in order to understand,” Hiatt said. “Our coaches, teachers and student-athletes winning awards is just everything coming to fruition. But it’s been there for a while now. It was here when I got here and I think that as long as the support for the students is like this, our kids will continue to be successful.”

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Sports Reporter

Jason is a journeyman sports reporter who has covered the Golden State Warriors, Oakland A's, along with a heavy emphasis on the Oakland Raiders. He comes to Cowlitz County from Oakland, Calif. and is a loving father.

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