Each year, schools around the state are invited by the Minnesota State High School League to recognize one senior girl and one senior boy as winners of the Academics, Arts and Athletics Award, commonly called the Triple-A or AAA Award. Recipients are elite in all three categories, and at a school the size of St. Michael-Albertville (17th in the state in terms of grades nine through 12 enrollment), competition is especially fierce.

The winners from the class of 2020 accomplished much in all three areas during their time at STMA. Both are members of STMA’s touring choir and both will be listed in these pages again next week along with the rest of STMA’s honors graduates. Both will be continuing their athletic careers at Minnesota colleges next year, and both are likely bound for further honors as they continue their education.

STMA’s class of 2020 girls AAA winner is track and field thrower Samantha Duerr, and the boys winner is Boston Merila, who started for Knight squads in football, basketball and baseball but is particularly noted for his skill in the latter sport.

“It is a huge honor to receive the award, especially given all the amazing kids and athletes that are at STMA,” Duerr said.

“It shows you’re involved in more than just sports; that you’re around all different kinds of people through [all three areas],” Merila said. “It meant a lot to win it.”

Academic excellence

We might do well to take our review of Duerr and Merila’s accomplishments in the order listed in the name of the award. Officially, students must hold a grade-point average of at least 3.0 to be in the running for the award, but both of STMA’s winners went well beyond that. Both have been awarded an academic letter for the 2019-20 year, which as seniors means their GPAs are above 3.75.

“I’ve been involved in college courses and other harder classes,” Merila said. “I’ve always taken academics seriously.”

Duerr ends her time at STMA with a GPA above 4.0.

“I’ve always put school at the top of my priorities and really pushed myself to take higher-level classes,” Duerr said. “I really pushed myself to take the next step in life, to go into college prepared.”

Both were involved in Advanced Placement, College in the Schools and Postsecondary Enrollment Option classes, which should serve them well when they head to their respective colleges this fall. Duerr is heading to the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph will Merila is enrolling at the University of Minnesota.

High achievers with low voices

The similarities between the two AAA winners continue when looking at the second A. Both Duerr and Merila pursued their artistic talents in singing the low notes for the school’s highest choir, as an alto and a bass, respectively.

Both winners had sung in church before, and Duerr sang in a choir in the middle school grades while attending St. Michael Catholic School, but both came to singing relatively late at STMA.

Duerr’s older brother T.J. was already in the choir when she was a sophomore, which led to her being recruited to join after not taking any arts classes the year before.

“They said, ‘hey, you have a nice low voice for a female, you should try out,” Duerr said.

She served as the president of her intermediate choir that first year, and then made into the Concert Choir, STMA’s top singing group, as a junior. For the 2019-20 season, she served as the historian for the group, helping record the choir’s experiences through pictures, video and social media.

Merila had established himself early on as an athletic talent, but was looking for something different when he took up the choir challenge as a junior.

“It was awesome to get to meet a new group of people and be in a new setting that I wasn’t as familiar with,” Merila said. “I’m really glad I made the decision to join choir.”

As a senior, Merila joined Duerr in the Concert Choir, which is a touring group that represents STMA in MSHSL concerts and performs in many in-state and out-of-state venues. Recent trips have taken the Concert Choir to Iowa and South Dakota as well as many different communities across Minnesota.

“I love how we’ve been able to touch so many people with our music and all the lessons that we can teach,” Duerr said. “Some of our concerts were about peace in the world [reacting to] all the school shootings, or helping to spread awareness of different things. Our music can really touch and change peoples lives. It’s amazing the things I’ve seen and been taught through choir.”

State stars

No one can win the AAA Award without displaying a superior talent in one or more athletic disciplines, and both of STMA’s winners have been standout performers for STMA teams that have been among the state’s most formidable.

Merila was never far from the STMA sporting scene, being a top contributor in all three seasons. In the middle linebacker spot for the football team, he led the Knights in tackles each of the last two years and helped the team reach the Class 6A state quarterfinals as a junior. He was also played guard for the Knights boys basketball team but shone brightest as a switch-hitting third baseman for the baseball team, where he hit for a .381 average across his sophomore and junior campaigns. He reaching the Class AAAA state tournament with the 2018 squad.

“It always kept me busy, going from sport to sport,” Merila said. “I liked being around different groups of guys and different coaches each season, and you learn different things from each sport that can transfer over to the others. It makes me a well-rounded athlete.”

Duerr was involved in soccer, basketball and track as a middle schooler but focused on track and weightlifting in more recent years. As a member of STMA’s storied track program, she took to the throwing events, the shot put and discus, which are sometimes deemphasized for girls or seen as more of an area for boys. Her father, himself a throwing athlete in his time, encouraged her to break the mold.

“So there were so few girl throwers, but [her dad] said I’m really strong and could probably good at it, so I tried it and it was so fun,” Duerr said.

Her father helped fill in the gaps in her training, and was part of the Knights varsity discus lineup by her eighth-grade season. She steadily improved and soon found that she even better in the shot put.

Her career culminated when she helped the Knight win the 2019 Section 5AA championship with her second-place showing in the shot put, a result that also advanced her to the Class AA state meet where she placed 12th.

“There was such an opportunity to grow the women throwers and make [throwing] more inclusive,” Duerr said. “I loved being a leader and helping the girls and the boys get better.”

A missed opportunity...

The fact that both Merila and Duerr are stars for teams that compete in the spring leads inevitably to sadness in this bizarre year of 2020. Due to the increasing spread of the COVID-19 virus, the MSHSL immediately halted all sports on March 13, a decision that entailed the unprecedented move of cutting short the state tournament in girls basketball, which was in progress at the time, and to never play the boys tournament, the qualifiers having been determined less than 24 hours earlier in the various section title games around the state.

Within days, Gov. Tim Walz closed all Minnesota schools by executive order. The closure was initially slated to last a little over a week but was repeatedly extended as the pandemic continued to spread over the next six weeks, when schools were at last ordered to close until the fall.

Initially, the MSHSL had left open the possibility that a spring season might be played in some form or another, but the final closure order for the schools also effectively canceled the spring sports season, since the league had explicitly pegged any resumption to athletics to the lifting of Walz’s closure order.

The Knights baseball squad was ranked No. 2 in the state in the preseason poll, and Duerr, as a returning state qualifier, was a favorite to get back to the championship meet.

Now, both AAA winners will be left to wonder what could have been, along with so many athletes around the state and the nation. Duerr would have competed in the section meet last week in an attempt to win another ticket to state, while Merila and his baseball teammates would likely be contesting the section tournament finals this week. All the big social events and other milestones of a senior’s spring were likewise canceled, including prom and the normal graduation ceremony. Academics were moved online, included the AP tests taken by Duerr, Merila and other high-achieving students. The Concert Choir also missed out on scheduled trips.

“It’s definitely been tough because all us seniors wanted to enjoy our final spring,” Merila said. “I’m trying to stay positive and think about all the good moments I got instead of the things I didn’t get this spring.”

“It’s been devastating; I’m such a social kid and I love my teachers and going to school, and all of that’s been cut off,” Duerr said. “I’m so used to having that face-to-face interaction. Missing out on meets and trips and everything has been awful, but we fight through it.”

Merila appreciated STMA’s efforts in setting up a kind of “curbside” graduation on May 20, which enables students and their families to drive up and receive their diplomas in cap and gown, in the absence of the usual ceremony.

“They still tried to make us feel like we got part of the experience,” Merila said.

...but not the final opportunity

Although Duerr and Merila will never know how their season seasons in their best sports might have turned out, their competitive careers in those sports are not at an end. Merila has been recruited to play Division I baseball next year for the Golden Gophers in a freshman class that includes STMA teammate Cody Kelly. Older STMA alums Will Anderson and Jack Kelly are already in the Gopher fold.

“It really means a lot that I get to continue my baseball career for a couple more years,” Merila said.

Merila will look to continue the U of M legacy of his father Mark Merila, the 1994 Big Ten player of the year who later played in the Minor Leagues before becoming a pro scout for the San Diego Padres.

Duerr will keep on throwing for the women’s track team at St. Ben’s. Collegiate throwers have the opportunity to add two new events to their repertoire, the hammer throw and the javelin throw.

“[The new events] kind of scare me a little bit, but it’ll be fun and I love to try new things,” Duerr said. “I’m just grateful to be able to continue [track] next year.”

Duerr won’t be too far from brother T.J., who plays on the football team at St. John’s University, the men’s college historically linked with the women’s programs at St. Ben’s. T.J. was a thrower at STMA too; last year, younger sister Emma, a hurdler for the Knights, made it a trio of Duerrs in the blue and gold.

Duerr plans to major in biology and then attend medical school en route to a career as a dermatologist. Merila is undecided as to his major but is leaning toward studying business.

“We’ll just see what piques my interest the most,” Merila said.

Both AAA winners will see what opportunities they can find to sing as well, in order to ensure that their pursuit of greatness in all three of their awards’ A’s continues.

With a couple of months still to go before they head off to college, both winners have an opportunity to look back on all of their accomplishments at STMA.

“I’m insanely thankful for the community and the teachers we have at STMA, and everyone that’s helped me,” Duerr said. “The opportunities you have as a student, athlete and artist compared to other schools in our area, it’s just insane what we’re given. Our teachers are phenomenal and our education is outstanding, and I feel so prepared for the next step in life.”

“The last four years have been awesome,” Merila said. “We have a really good community and I’ve been able to make a lot of good friends, and I have a lot of good memories from sports and choir that I can with me. The things I learned at STMA are going to transfer with me into college and be with me the rest of my life.”

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