Ceremony is the first to occur in Knoxville Catholic’s new St. Gregory the Great Auditorium
By Dan McWilliams
Knoxville Catholic High School held its first National Signing Day in its new St. Gregory the Great Auditorium on Nov. 9 as seven student athletes committed to play college sports at seven different universities.
Signing were Harrison Thompson with West Virginia University in golf; Gracie Pardue with the University of Toledo in swimming; Sydney Clements with Tennessee Tech University in soccer; Jazmin Williams with Bluefield University in basketball; Daniel Parris with the University of Tennessee in baseball; Maeve Thornton, a two-time state singles champion, with Furman University in tennis; and Carson Gompert with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in tennis.
KCHS athletics director Jason Surlas opened the signing ceremony with a prayer.
“We thank you for the gift of Knoxville Catholic High School and for each of these student athletes and their families represented here today,” he said. “With your help, Lord, they have accomplished many things on the fields, courts, and pools. Today we celebrate them as they commit to the next chapter of their education and athletic careers. I pray that each of them will always remember how important it is that they always place themselves in your loving hands, no matter where their futures take them, to always call on you for strength and perseverance when they experience difficult times in their lives, and to give you all the glory and honor when they reach their highest successes.”
Athletics at Knoxville Catholic “are way more than winning games,” Mr. Surlas said. “Of course, we want to win. Everybody wants to win, but it’s what we learn when we don’t win that can be important as well. We also want them to learn the wonderful things that come with playing sports: a commitment, accountability, time management with grades and athletics, good sportsmanship, and simply how to be a good teammate. All those things are so important, just to name a few. But we also want to prepare them for when they graduate high school and they leave us, and they all do. We want to make sure they’re prepared both academically and athletically.”
Twenty-six KCHS student athletes signed last year on five signing days. Over the last 10 years, more than 200 student athletes have signed to play college sports.
Mr. Surlas spoke of the small chances of high school athletes playing in college in each of the sports represented by the athletes who signed Nov. 9.
“These statistics clearly indicate that these seven seated up here, representing six different sports, are joining a very small but very elite group of college athletes,” he said. “Who knows what the future may hold for them? We may see a PGA Tour player, or an Olympic swimmer, or a World Cup soccer athlete, or a WNBA basketball player, or a Major League Baseball player, or we may watch Maeve in Wimbledon, or we may watch Carson in the Australian Open. I will tell you one thing that I know, and I know because I’ve watched it, and I know because of my coaches who obviously are bragging on it constantly: they’re great teammates. They’re great people, and they’re very hard workers.”
Each athlete at the signing ceremony had a chance to introduce himself or herself and thank those who had supported him or her. Mr. Surlas thanked their parents and grandparents for their financial support and their efforts in driving athletes to games amid myriad other tasks.
“Parents, there is absolutely no way possible that they could be up here without you,” Mr. Surlas said. “I also want to mention our coaches and our teachers and our counselors. This may be something that a lot of you know, but this is my 17th year, and I know—I’ve seen it all throughout my time here of how much their teachers, coaches, and counselors care about them. They work in unison, three parts, and they make sure these kids get the opportunities they get.
“Coaches, they have a massive responsibility to get these kids ready in their respective sports but also to allow them the time to get their stuff done in the classroom. We don’t have four-hour practices because they understand the importance of allowing these student athletes to manage their time. I will say this: every year some of our best athletes are some of our best academic students, and that certainly is the case this year as well.”
Mr. Surlas expressed his gratitude toward the signees.
“I want to say this: I want to say thank you. As the athletic director here, you guys have represented us, this school, a place that I love with all of my heart, you have represented this school amazingly,” he said. “I can honestly say this: I’ve never not been super-proud when I’m watching these seven perform. You see how skilled they are at their craft, but you also see the leadership and the commitment.
“Enjoy this day. It’s a special day, and tomorrow start over and set the bar higher. It takes this much more to be great, so set that bar higher. Be more committed, prepare harder, sacrifice more. For four years, maybe five or whatever . . . rededicate yourselves to your sport every day. The most important thing I will ever say to you is make sure you take God with you because there are going to be times when you really need Him. Ask Him for help, ask Him for strength, ask Him for courage, ask Him for wisdom.”
Daniel Parris signed with his hometown university as he committed to the Vols and head coach Tony Vitello in baseball.
“It was a big deal for me, picking my hometown,” he said. “I wanted to stay here and really didn’t want to leave my family that much. Vitello was the best fit for me, so that’s why I picked them.”
The shortstop/pitcher attracted the eye of Coach Vitello.
“He saw me down in Georgia in travel ball and saw me playing both ways and he offered me both ways: pitching and hitting,” Daniel said.
He added that he does not worry about how the Vols will use him.
“However he wants to use me is how I’ll play, pitching or hitting or position, however I fit in is how I’ll play,” he said.
Signing with a top-level Division I school “means a lot to me,” Daniel said. “It shows that my work was paying off.”