One student excels on the basketball court with her athleticism and leadership. The other shines on stage with her ability to tell a story and express feelings through dance.
Though their paths are different, their talents are sending them both to the same place – college.
On Friday afternoon, Oxford High School seniors HaLaya Cato and Allison Zardus celebrated the next step in their athletic and dance careers by participating in a signing ceremony. Surrounded by family, friends, coaches, teachers and teammates, the students committed themselves to attending institutions of higher learning that will allow each of them to continue pursuing their passions.
Cato is off to play basketball at St. Clair County Community College in Port Huron, while Zardus will continue dancing at Alma College.
Cato, who’s been a three-year starter for the varsity girls basketball team, received a half-tuition scholarship and plans to someday enter the medical field.
“I want to be a labor and delivery nurse,” she said.
Zardus, who’s been part of the Oxford Dance Conservatory since her freshman year, received a Distinguished Scholarship in Dance, which will provide $6,500 per year toward her education. At Alma, she plans to double major in dance and athletic training or sports medicine.
“I want to work (at) a school like this and be an athletic trainer,” Zardus said.
The adults who have led, instructed and mentored these young women couldn’t say enough good things about them.
“Like many of my athletes, (Cato) has just blown me away,” said Rachel Bryer, head coach of the varsity girls basketball team.
She said Cato, a team captain, has been “phenomenal” when it comes to “leading the girls on and off the court.”
According to Bryer, Cato’s confidence in herself and her game helped increase the team’s overall level of competitiveness.
Cato was a post player for the Lady Cats, a position typically held by taller athletes. She is 5 feet 6 inches tall and, according to Bryer, in Oxford’s league, post players are typically at least 5 feet 9 inches.
Cato compensated for her lack of height with an effective combination of strength and speed.
“Most post players aren’t as fast as I am,” she said.
“I think from a young age HaLaya developed the skills (necessary) to play with her back against the basket,” Bryer said. “Not a lot of players, even tall (ones), know how to play in that position because they’re not used to playing like that. They’re used to facing the basket.”
When he saw her play for Oxford, Chris Huss, head coach of the women’s basketball team at St. Clair, was really impressed with “how athletic (Cato) is around the basket,” especially for a smaller player.
“She’s a tough player. I think she’ll do well for us,” he said. “I think she’s going to bring a little bit of scoring. I think she can rebound. I’m hoping to use her inside and out, that’s my plan.”
Influenced by her father Robert’s passion for the game, Cato has been playing since the fifth grade.
Basketball has made Cato a more patient person and a more confident person.
“I’m able to do whatever I put my mind to,” she said.
Although Bryer is “happy” Cato is going to continue playing basketball, “something that she loves,” the coach noted it’s “going to be hard to replace (her) next year.”
“I’m really sad to see her go,” Bryer said. “She’s going to be greatly missed, not only as an athlete, but also as a friend and as a family member.”
Dana Brewer and Katy Stavropoulos, the Oxford Dance Conservatory’s instructors, were very complimentary of Zardus.
Brewer described her as a passionate, hard-working and determined young woman who is “excellent” when it comes to performing “every single style” of dance.
Stavropoulos said Zardus has “always been a leader” in the program and is one of three students who danced at the advanced level all four years. She noted Zardus was a regular choreographer for after-school dance companies and was part of a group that placed first overall at the Oakland Dance Festival.
Zardus was an “amazing asset” to the Oxford Dance Conservatory, in Stavropoulos’ opinion. “We couldn’t be more proud of her,” she said.
Zardus is going to miss the “family” she’s built through the program.
“They helped me grow as a person and as a dancer,” she said. “(The instructors) are both so nice and they give you so many opportunities that a studio or any place else would not.”
In addition to motivating her to try new things and constantly strive to be better, Zardus said dancing has taught her the value of making connections and forging relationships.
“The dance world is really small,” she said. “If you know somebody, say ‘hi’ (when you see them). Take advantage of (that encounter) because you’ll probably see them more than once.”
Launched in 2013, the Oxford Dance Conservatory is designed to help prepare students to dance at the college and professional levels. Although the program focuses on ballet and modern dance, students are given the opportunity to study other styles, including jazz, hip hop, ballroom and cultural dances.