By Matthew Saari

This year’s Distinguished Young Woman event was absolutely stiff with competition, with each contestant bringing her own strengths and vibrant personality to the stage, and the contest proved to be nail-biter until the very end when Mistress of Ceremonies Peggy Sparano announced the winner.
When Morgan O’Dell’s name reverberated through the Whitehall High School auditorium, no one was more shocked than she was.
Bursting into tears of merriment and celebration, O’Dell embraced last year’s Distinguished Young Woman, Alexa Brooks, who awarded O’Dell the honorary medal. O’Dell then embraced both runners-up, Jessica Bruce and Hannah Bascue, who were also shedding tears of joy for their friend and fellow contestant.
“I honestly did not think I was going to win,” O’Dell said. “There was very high competition.”
Following the announcement, O’Dell could only manage fragments to describe her emotions: “Shocked, amazed, so happy.”
O’Dell edged out six very talented, intelligent and committed young women, all of whom are high school juniors. Her prize is a $2,500 scholarship to further her education.
The seven contestants competed in five distinct categories including scholastic achievement, interview, fitness, talent and self-expression.
In contrast to last year when Brooks won two segments accounting for a hefty 50 percent of the overall score, this year’s categories were divided among several of the candidates, illustrating how varied, unique and close in talent they all were.
O’Dell’s performance did not win her a top spot in any of the categories, but she performed well in every category, thus proving that the DYW contest is about being “good, all-around” girls, as organizer Cheryl Putorti said.
“All the scores were very close this year,” she added.
After O’Dell was announced the winner, all of the other contestants congratulated her.
“I’m so happy for her,” Bruce said amid a teary smile.
“We’re really, really proud of our friend Morgan,” added a watery-eyed Bascue. “These are tears of joy for our friend.”
Bruce was named first runner-up, earning a $1,000 scholarship, and grabbed wins in both the fitness and talent portions, netting her an additional $200.
Bascue garnered the second runner-up position of the contest and a win for self-expression.
The evening opened with the young women walking down the auditorium aisles to be up front and center, then performing a choreographed number directed by former DYW contestant Samantha Kasuba.
With only a few moments’ rest, the girls transitioned to the fitness portion of the contest. Under the bright stage lights the girls kicked, jumped and busted a collective move to another choreographed number, this one directed by Taryn Tracy, another former DYW contestant.
Following a change of attire, the ladies showcased their personal talents in the aptly named talent segment.
Six of the young ladies chose a form of dance for their talent. Many if not all had been dancing since an early age and cited instructor Gretta Hochsprung. Hochsprung was in attendance, getting into the groove of her students’ selections while sitting in the audience.
Amanda VanGuilder opened the segment with a lyrical dance to “Amazing Grace.” Chloe Harris followed with a tap dance to “That’s Rich.” Harris’ act ended with a cascade of legal tender, resulting in a vociferous response from the audience. O’Dell performed a Celtic dance to “Hair of the Dog.”
Bruce, who won the segment, performed pointe ballet to “Humble and Kind” by Tim McGraw. Jensen Keough offered a tap dance to the “Cups Song” from Pitch Perfect. Lastly, Bascue performed a lyrical dance to “Safe and Sound.”
Kaylyn Rehm was the only contestant to not choose a form of dance. She opted to play the piano, offering the audience a rendition of “River Flows in You.”
Self-expression followed the talent portion. The girls had to choose a random question from a basket, then offer an immediate response for judges and audience members. Bascue claimed this category as a win.
Behind the scenes, Rehm stole the win for scholastics and Keough captured the win for interview.
Brooks was on hand to deliver a speech about her involvement with the program, what it meant to her and what she’s been doing since the audience last saw her. Brooks will travel to Mobile, Alabama in June to represent not only Whitehall but New York state in the national competition. Brooks also announced her commitment to attend SUNY Albany studying human biology with a pre-med track.
The future of DYW was on hand as well in the form of the “Little Sisters” of the Be Your Best Self Program, all of whom are third graders in the Whitehall elementary school.
Each contestant worked with two “little sisters” educating them about what it means to be their best selves in areas such as morality, academics, and fitness, among others. Each “little sister” was given the opportunity share what they learned in front of the audience. Many of the current contestants were at one time “little sisters” and these current “little sisters” will grow to become Distinguished Young Women.
O’Dell will compete in the state competition in Cohoes on July 29. To prepare, O’Dell said she would definitely be working with Brooks, learning as many tips and tricks as she can glean.

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