Eagle Valley rocks: Devils’ Class of 2023 goes out with a bang at eclectic graduation ceremony

Outgoing principal Greg Doan delivers a heartfelt charge to graduates

Caden Roebke, Montana Palmer and Christiana San Diego perform "Rivers and Roads" at Saturday's Eagle Valley High School commencement in Gypsum. The trio were the three senior members of the school's choir.
Ben Roof/Vail Daily Archive

GYPSUM — Devils dance to their own music.

That was apparent Saturday on the hot turf at Hot Stuff Stadium for a commencement ceremony that was equal parts eclectic, offbeat, moving and flat-out rocked.

If there was one moment that captured the spirit of this Eagle Valley High School group of seniors, it was in the middle of Trees Don’t Move’s performance of the class song, “Felony.” The local alt-rock band includes 2023 graduates Ben Suttor on vocals, Christian Dent on lead guitar and Jax Leija on drums.

Leija, while spinning one of his drumsticks, lost his grip, and the stick hit the turf. He didn’t miss a beat, continuing to play with one hand for about 20 seconds before bassist Micah Robinson reached down under the kit and handed the stick back to Leija.

Local alt-rock band Trees Don’t Move performs “Felony,” an original song chosen by Eagle Valley graduates as their class song, during Saturday’s commencement in Gypsum. Three members of the band — Christian Dent, Jax Leija and Ben Suttor — were among the graduating class.
Ben Roof/For the Vail Daily

Xiomara Caballero captured that spirit of perseverance in her honorary address to her classmates.

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“If there’s one thing I’d like everyone to remember today is, it is keep going,” she said. “Whether it is mental health holding you down, you are never alone. Or other factors that come with growing up like adulting or budgeting, you are never alone. I mean it — keep going.”

These Devils certainly kept going, through a pandemic, and through challenges inside and outside the classroom, to make it to Saturday’s culmination of their high school lives.

Confetti flies through the air Saturday at Hot Stuff Stadium in Gypsum.
Ben Roof/For the Vail Daily

“If there’s anything I’ve learned over these past four years, it’s that Eagle Valley stands for many things — one of the most prominent being perseverance,” Caballero said. “You have a voice. Use it. Persevere. Fight for what you believe in. Strive to be the best version of yourself. Push to be better every day.”

Valedictorian Sophia Weisberger told her classmates to “let your light shine” as they embark on the next chapter of their lives. 

“We can radiate in front of hundreds of people or just a few close friends,” she said. “All of our seniors shined in different ways, but we are brighter together.”

Salutatorian Hailey Gifford thanked all of those who helped the Class of 2023 arrive at their commencement Saturday, from teachers to parents to friends.

Xiomara Caballero, who delivered the honorary senior address, beams as she walks to get her picture taken with her diploma in hand Saturday in Gypsum. Eagle Valley’s graduating class numbered 224 students.
Ben Roof/For the Vail Daily

“Thank you for pushing us to succeed, for challenging us to think critically, and for fostering an environment of growth and learning. We would not be here without you,” she said.

She also told classmates to cherish the memories created in high school.

“Our memories are what make our high school experience so special,” she said. “There is no obstacle too great to overcome. We can accomplish anything. Although we are moving onto the next chapter of our lives, let’s not forget the experiences that have shaped us into who we are today.”

Eagle Valley Principal, Gregory Doan puts his arms around Randall and Thomas Reynolds as they pose for a photo while he congratulates them following Saturday’s commencement at Hot Stuff Stadium in Gypsum.
Ben Roof/For the Vail Daily

Andrew Wheeler, who teaches English and coaches soccer at the school, told all 224 members of the graduating class that Saturday’s commencement was a celebration “of all of you entering a new phase in your lives.”

He used Kings Island amusement park in Cincinnati, where he spent countless summer days as a teenager, as a metaphor for what the future entails. High school, he said, is akin to an amusement park experience. Everything is arranged and presented to you, maps abound, the code of conduct is clearly spelled out, and park employees are always nearby to ensure a safe, enjoyable experience.

Life after high school is like a sandbox, Wheeler said. Nothing has been established, and nobody tells you how to play. So how do you succeed?

“Get hands-on and explore,” Wheeler said. “Your individual determination will guide the next phase of your life. Get your hands dirty. Dig in. Touch, mold, deconstruct, get creative.”

He also encouraged graduates to accept impermanence.

“Embrace failure and understand that we all have to start again,” he said. “Enjoy what you’ve created in this moment, but realize in life that everything changes. All good things come to an end, but usually just to make room for new experiences.”

He closed his speech by saying his favorite part of Kings Island as a kid was fireworks every night, before jumping off-stage to join Trees Don’t Move on guitar for a lifting cover of Katy Perry’s “Firework.” Before the band hit the first chord, confetti poppers went off all around the graduates. Beach balls also bounced through the crowd as the band and Williams tore through the song with teacher Danelle Rivera — in a Devils red dress and black Doc Martens — joining Suttor on vocals.

CJ Yurcak receives her diploma with a smile on her face as the faculty congratulates her at Eagle Valley High School’s graduation ceremony Saturday morning in Gypsum.
Ben Roof/For the Vail Daily

Yeah, definitely not your typical high school graduation.

And that was all before Eagle Valley Principal Greg Doan admitted to the class and the community at large, in his charge to the seniors after 12 years leading the school, that the label with which he most identifies is as a Muppet.

Yes, a Muppet. Doan even pulled out a Muppet version of himself from underneath the podium — complete with glasses, a bow tie and sneakers — to make the point that it’s OK to be different and to embrace the things that make you unique.

“I want you to know that I am at my absolute best when I absorb and I take in all the parts of me that are weird and different and strange,” he said. “Because when I’m a Muppet, I am my happiest. So my charge to you, the Class of 2023, is whatever life brings you, accept those labels that describe you. Move forward in life, proud of who you are and all of your identities.”

Doan said he spent the past year taking the time to sit down with every member of the graduating class. In those talks, students told him about their favorite memories, their biggest challenges, their favorite teachers and what they planned to do after high school. But he said one question, in particular, caught everyone off-guard.

“And that question was, tell me something about you that is personal, noticeable, or recognizable,” Doan said. “I appreciated the thoughtful pause for the sheer fear that you had in that moment to think, ‘What do I say now? Who am I and what am I going to say?’ I quickly learned in that one question about your backgrounds or personal lives, your passions, your fears, your families, your struggles, and your aspirations. And somehow, we have taken these ideas of what your identity is and put labels on it and made this afraid to say who we actually are.”

He said he found himself inspired when students used labels to describe themselves.

The senior members of Eagle Valley High School’s choir sing “Rivers and Roads” at the opening of Saturday’s commencement ceremony in Gypsum.
Ben Roof/For the Vail Daily

“One of you in particular described how you were a Latina, an immigrant, and an unaccompanied minor. All of those were used, and those labels are profound to your identity,” he said. “Today, you will be the first in your family to graduate from high school after living completely on your own. You told me that today, graduation day would be the day you’re reuniting with your family, who you haven’t seen in years, and I was uplifted by hearing that identity, knowing you carry those labels with pride.”

He also made a point, as someone who has struggled with depression and anxiety, that he was both saddened and humbled when students admitted labels such as anxiety, depression and even suicidal ideation.

“We need to destigmatize any negative labels that come with mental health and encourage more people to seek help,” he said. “It was through this question that was so personal that I got to know your true identities.”

Doan closed his speech by saying how proud he is of one label that will always stick.

“Thank you to the class of 2023 for being on this journey with me,” he added. “And the last part of my identity I’ll say today is I will always be an Eagle Valley High School Devil. Ain’t it great to be a Devil!”

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