The "year of the Hawk" came to an exhilarating end Sunday when more than 400 students in Bozeman High School's class of 2011 celebrated their graduation.
Caps and confetti erupted high into the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse at Montana State University, new graduates hugged in a blur of red and black robes, and thousands of happy family members cheered and clicked digital photos to capture the moment.
"I'm super excited, but it's definitely bittersweet," said Rachel Parkes, student vice president. The class of 2011 was special, she said. "I feel like we're all best friends. We're definitely talented, with athletics and National Merit scholars. I'm pretty much in awe of our class."
Bozeman School Superintendent Kirk Miller said many people have characterized this as "the year of the Hawk." This school year, he said, Bozeman High won five state athletic championships, including its first football championship in 93 years; had eight National Merit Scholarship finalists and 20 straight-A students; and students performed 4,600 hours of volunteer service in the community, in addition to having the Montana teacher of the year.
Miller said he's proud of all 405 graduates, for their "work ethic, passion and compassion." The country will be in great hands with students like these, he said.
"I'm very excited," said Akeo Maifeld-Carucci, 18, one of 20 students to graduate with perfect 4.0 grade point averages. He and friend Ben Dickensheets, another 4.0 grad, are both going to Harvard University and thinking of studying engineering.
"I really enjoyed my time at Bozeman High - the teachers are all very caring and supportive, especially the AP teachers," said Maifeld-Carucci, who will compete for Harvard's Nordic ski team. Dickensheets agreed, saying all his high school classes were "phenomenal."
Best friends Hunter Chandler and Marc Evans, Hawk football players, posed nearby for family photos. They're both going to MSU-Northern next year and will get to play football there. "I feel honored to be part of the 2011 class," Chandler said, because of "just how tight we are. We're all friends."
Leah Hueser, who sang in the high school choir, said she felt "overwhelmed, excited, happy." She plans to attend MSU and study music. Friend Maggie Hickman, who's heading to Whitman College in Washington, said she felt "stoked - it's kind of unreal though."
Mary Engel, posing for photos with her daughter, Jessie Dry, and stepdaughter, Sophia Carpenter, admitted she had been "sobbing a little bit. These are our two youngest. It's sad to see them move on, but I'm so excited." Dry is heading to college in Canada and Carpenter to California.
The graduating class was well behaved - no beach balls were tossed, as Principal Rob Watson had requested. Still, students showed their irreverent side - underneath their graduation robes, many wore shorts and running shoes. Some came in flip-flops, while others wore cowgirl boots, or high heels and pearls.
The crowd and graduates cheered for everyone who walked up to receive a diploma, from Anderson Grant Barkow to Zalie Zitzer. They cheered for football hero Tanner Roderick and special-education students, gay student Kevin Challender, who came out of the closet this year, a homeless student, and Native American and Hispanic students.
The senior class had chosen as its graduation speakers football coach Troy Purcell and student David Thiede, who made humorous videos for Hawk TV and plans to study film at MSU.
"You now have the opportunity to be whatever you want to be," Purcell told graduates. He urged them to remember that at the end of the day, they have to be able to look themselves in the eye in the mirror "and ask if you've done everything you can to achieve your goals."
Thiede joked about the elementary school teachers who probably lost a bet because he was graduating, but also talked about the "sense of unity" shared by the Class of 2011. The school's championships were achieved by teamwork, he said. "I'm confident we can accomplish our life goals if we show the same determination and teamwork."
Thiede concluded by saying humility is a great quality, but "today, you don't have to be humble. ... We da best!"
Gail Schontzler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 582-2633.