Nine Palmer Ridge Student-Athletes Sign Their National Letters of Intent

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A couple times a year, senior high school athletes all over the country sign their National Letter of Intent (NLI), confirming their achievement of becoming a collegiate athlete. On Wednesday, April 20, nine Palmer Ridge student-athletes joined the 7% of high school athletes that make it to collegiate level, eight of which joining the 2% of high school athletes that play in the NCAA, the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

To celebrate this achievement of hard work and dedication, Palmer Ridge held an event for these nine athletes to sign their letters of intent. On the stage in the Palmer Ridge auditorium, these nine athletes sat at tables covered with Palmer Ridge table cloths, surrounded by blue and gold balloons. On top of the navy table cloth sat nine pens and nine National Letters of Intent, one for each signing athlete. Family, friends, coaches, teammates, and Palmer Ridge students filled up the seats to proudly watch the athletes sign their letters.

The nine athletes who sat upon the stage were TJ Saglembeni (12), Makenna West (12), Lauren Halenkamp (12), Layton Wright (12), Tony Cocozziello-Perez (12), Ayden Snow (12), Cassie Lorenz (12), Katie Wotta (12), and Kendall Gouner (12). TJ Saglembeni will be running Division II cross country and track and field at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. Teammates Makenna West and Lauren Halenkamp both signed to play field hockey, Makenna signing to play Division II at Wingate University and Lauren signing to play Division I at the University of Vermont. Teammates Layton Wright and Tony Cocozziello-Perez both signed to play to Division II football, Layton signing to Chadron State College and Tony signing to Black Hill State University. Ayden Snow signed to play Division I lacrosse at the University of Detroit Mercy. Cassie Lorenz signed to play volleyball at Northeastern Junior College. Finally, Katie Wotta and Kendall Gouner both signed to play Division I soccer, Katie signing to the United States Air Force Academy and Kendall signing to The University of Texas at San Antonio.

The nine signing athletes pose for a picture. Pictured left to right: TJ Saglembeni, Makenna West, Lauren Halenkamp, Layton Wright, Tony Cocozziello-Perez, Ayden Snow, Cassie Lorenz, Katie Wotta, and Kendall Gouner. Picture taken by Oliver Hayes.

Before the athletes finally put pen on paper, each athlete’s coach had a moment to remember their time at Palmer Ridge, honoring their achievements as an athlete as well as a person. While the coaches covered the athletic success of each athlete in a different way, all the athletes had one thing in common: character. Every speech was rooted in the character of each signing athlete. Soccer coach and science teacher Mr. Odil was even brought to tears when talking about the inspiring and hard-working personalities of Katie Wotta, Kendall Gouner, and Keagan McKorkle (12; Keagan signed her National Letter of Intent in a prior NLI signing event). Whether it was being a leader or overcoming a huge obstacle, the identity of Palmer Ridge athletics was felt. “We are all thankful for the time you [the signing athletes] have spent here, all the hours and work you all have put in,” Mr. Odil said.

After each of the coaches spoke about their signing players, it was time for the main event: signing the National Letters of Intent. Simultaneously, each athlete brought pen to paper, officially confirming their achievement of becoming a collegiate athlete. While the cameras flashed, the crowd cheered.

Now that the main event was over, the festivities ensued. Proud, teary-eyed parents took pictures and hugged their newly-signed children. Friends, teachers, teammates, and coaches followed as the athletes continued to receive their well-deserved barrage of congratulations. In the following moments, parents handed out college themed goodies to those in attendance while the athletes spoke to local media.

While the event was great in itself, nothing could compare to the hours, days, weeks, and years that went into becoming a college athlete. “I have gone through a lot of stuff to get here both mentally and physically. From injuries to bouncing back from Covid-19, like everyone else had to deal with, it’s nice to finally be able to go somewhere and have a place to call home,” Black Hills State University football commit, Tony Cocozziello-Perez, said.

“It [hard work and sacrifice] is definitely worth it, hard work pays off. I don’t think I would be here without all the after hours training extra, skipping on hanging out to go and train and run. It’s definitely worth it,” University of Colorado Colorado Springs running commit, TJ Saglembeni, added.

Tony Cocozziello-Perez, Ayden Snow, and TJ Saglembeni smile for a picture. The three athletes became friends throughout high school. Picture taken by Oliver Hayes.

Many of the speaking coaches talked about some of the hardships their athletes had to face. Whether it was an injury, changing position, or even being completely new to the sport they were committing to play in college, each athlete had their own obstacles they had to overcome. “It [the journey] was a lot. I have not always been that good at soccer, so it took a lot of hard work and I am really thankful for the people around me who helped me,” United States Air Force Academy soccer commit, Katie Wotta, said.

For the University of Texas at San Antonio soccer commit, Kendall Gouner, she had to overcome an injury that sidelined her for six months during her junior year. With most recruitment and communication from college coaches coming during an athlete’s junior year and following summer, suffering such a significant injury can be quite brutal. “Not being able to play for however long, I think it was six months, definitely made me realize how grateful I am that I can play now. Every game is more meaningful than the one before just because I know it can be taken away any day. I just play as hard as I can and be thankful for the talent I have and being healthy,” Gouner said.

Luckily for Kendall, her return to the soccer pitch has been more than phenomenal. Despite being a defenseman, Kendall has currently scored 16 goals on the season, putting her second all-time in Palmer Ridge history for total individual goals scored in a season. With three games, plus playoffs, left in the season, Gouner is hopeful to make her way to first in the record books, saying that becoming the top single-season goal scorer in program history is one her “goals,” no pun intended.

Soccer teammates, Katie Wotta and Kendall Gouner, smile together after signing their National Letters of Intent. Both athletes signed to play Division I soccer. Picture provided by Kendall Gouner.

Not only is signing your National Letter of Intent a great checkpoint in each signing athlete’s journey, to be able to sign on the same stage as those who experienced the journey with you is much better. Seven of the nine athletes got the chance to be able to fulfill this opportunity. “It [signing with Makenna] was awesome. I love Makenna, we have been through a lot together, especially with sports and games and all kinds of stuff. So it was awesome to sign with her,” University of Vermont field hockey commit, Lauren Halenkamp, said.

While Layton Wright got the chance to sign with teammates Tony Cocozziello-Perez and Ayden Snow (Ayden was a multi-sport athlete at Palmer Ridge, playing varsity basketball and football in addition to the sport he signed for, lacrosse), he also got the chance to sign to the same college as his older brother, Saxon. After Saxon graduated in 2021 as one of Palmer Ridge’s best pass rushers and defensive players ever, he signed to Chadron State. For Layton, this was obviously a huge pull to commit to Chadron State.

“It feels awesome having another three years with my brother. I will see how it turns out, but hopefully we get to start together for a couple of years,” Layton said.

The nine athletes sign their National Letters of Intent. Local media and cameramen snap pictures as they cover the event. Picture taken by Oliver Hayes.

On this celebratory April morning, nine Palmer Ridge athletes signed to play athletics at the collegiate level, a huge accomplishment that takes a lot of time, hard work, and dedication. While many of the athletes shared with The Bear Truth, Ayden Snow summed up the whole experience perfectly, saying “It [signing his NLI] is super exciting. A little exciting, a little nervous for the new adventure, the new city, all those types of things. I am a little nervous to play at such a high level, compete, and basically start from ground zero.”