W hitehall’s top two students are looking to build, quite literally, upon their high school success.
Zach Diekel and Emily Sweeney, who were announced as valedictorian and salutatorian earlier this year, both plan to pursue engineering degrees. It only seems fitting that two multifaceted students would gravitate toward a field that requires a well-rounded education and knowledge of multiple fields.
During their time at Whitehall High School, Diekel and Sweeney have both been defined by an aptitude that stretches beyond the classroom alone. It gets without saying that both are excellent students, but they are also accomplished athletes and role models.
“Zach displays a rare combination of academic ability, athletic ability and a friendly personality,” said Kristen Carey, senior high guidance counselor.
Earlier this year, Diekel became only the fourth wrestler from Whitehall to win a state wrestling title, joining Jamie Huntington, Dan Bishop, and his father Paul Diekel.
He is the most accomplished wrestler in school history, with 234 wins and five Section II titles.
However, his athleticism isn’t limited to the wrestling mats alone.
Diekel was a standout lineman for the Railroaders and was named an Adirondack League all-star as well as a second team all-state selection last fall. He is also one of the leading discus throwers in the area.
His accolades, coupled with his strong academics, drew attention from Cornell, Harvard, Dartmouth, and the University of Albany.
“He’s the hardest worker I’ve ever dealt with in terms of athletics and in school,” said Justin Culligan, who teaches history and economics, and coaches football and track at Whitehall. “He’s extremely coach-able. You tell him once and he’s got it.”
“He’s a one in a million kid. He’s going to grow up to be anything he wants to be. He’s going to excel. You don’t worry about him.”
Perhaps more important than his athletic exploits, however, is his personality.
“It’s tough to find anyone who could say anything bad about him,” Culligan said. “He’d do anything for you. He’s the nicest kid.”
Carey has gotten to know Diekel as an advisor in the Peer Helpers program and describes him as a role model.
“He has been extremely helpful in tutoring younger students and sets an excellent example for them to follow,” she said.
Kelly McHugh, high school principal, expressed a similar sentiment.
“He is a terrific role model for the young kids.”
She said after he won the state wrestling championship, many of the younger wrestlers followed him and were asking about the experience.
“They really look up to him.”
Despite all his accomplishments, Diekel has remained extremely humble.
“He kind of just brushed it off even though it was such a huge accomplishment,” McHugh said.
Many of the same attributes that are expressed about Diekel also apply to Sweeney.
“She’s an incredibly conscientious student and has an outstanding work ethic,” McHugh said.
Culligan, who had Sweeney as a student in her seventh, junior and senior years, and coached in her track, said she has always been an extremely motivated student.
“She’s never missed an assignment and never scored below a 90 on a test.”
Like Diekel, Sweeney has been extremely active outside the world of academia.
She has played soccer and track, and also competed as a skeleton athlete.
“I’m amazed by the bravery and dedicated she has shown while sliding skeleton. She consistently traveled two hours to compete in a sport she loves, while keeping up with her classes, and sports in Whitehall,” Carey said. “She strikes me as a fearless young woman who doesn’t back down in the face of a challenge; instead she puts in the time and hard work to achieve her goals.”
Sweeney was also involved with the Distinguished Young Women program, finishing as the second runner-up, and has been active in the school music department, playing the saxophone in both the traditional band and jazz band, and was a member of the hand bells group.
“She is very good student,” said Marc Pratt, Whitehall band director. “She has been taking music theory and has really broadened her musical knowledge.”
And if those commitments weren’t enough, Sweeney has also held down a part-time job at Shaw’s supermarket in Fair Haven, Vt., worked as a swim teacher at school, occasionally served as a life guard for the adult swim program, and been an altar server at her church.
“She is an incredible young woman,” McHugh said.
“Both Zach and Emily are outstanding role models for the younger students and are well-rounded individuals.”
“I don’t know if either ever rests,” she joked
Sweeney plans to pursue a degree in environmental engineering and is weighing whether to spend a year or two at SUNY Adirondack or attend Clarkson University in the fall. She is the daughter of Andrea and Daniel Sweeney.
Diekel, who hasn’t decided which engineering discipline he’ll pursue, will attend Lehigh and compete on the school’s division I wrestling program. He is the son of Paul and Christine Diekel.