Strong academic performance and dedication to athletic excellence converged beneath the shade of river-fed rolling hills at a retreat center south of Killeen.

For the third year, Ellison High School’s Plus One students celebrated their All-District Academic status with a day of fun and challenge at Variety’s Peaceable Kingdom.

This year, 166 Ellison students, representing every sport and every grade level, earned the Plus One distinction. They won a customized patch for their letter jacket and their name written on a roster displayed in the school’s commons.

More than that, students said, they celebrated meeting a goal that mixes two significant challenges.

On Thursday, half the group made the trip to Peaceable Kingdom and took part in low-ropes course physical challenges. They also ate lunch together and went swimming. The rest of the group will go next week.

In one challenge, athletes balanced in pairs on suspended cables, each leaning on the other while teammates served as “turtles,” keeping them from falling off. In another, athletes moved along a Z-shaped cable course holding on to ropes and one another.

Each challenge required thinking together and using different physical strengths to ensure success for the team.

“It’s fun to see the kids work together,” said Trent Gregory, Ellison High athletics coordinator. “They’re using teamwork and leadership skills and they’re getting to spend time together. They have worked hard in the classroom and we want to celebrate that.”

When Gregory joined the Ellison faculty, Principal David Dominguez challenged he and Curriculum Director Rhea Bell to form an alliance that would benefit all students.

They first heard the phrase Plus One from Eric Cupp, a motivational speaker and professional development presenter known to urge students and educators to give all they have plus one.

“These students are taking care of grades and athletics,” Bell said. “They are doing more than is expected. We believe that breeds good habits that will pay off later in life.”

The honor seems to be catching hold at the Ellison campus. In their first year, 95 students earned the All-District Academic honor. Last year, 131 met the standard and this year, it’s up to 166.

“I use this to motivate my students,” said volleyball coach Sarah Stolley. She said 10 of her 13 varsity volleyball players earned the distinction this year.

“This is great opportunity for a break in school,” said sophomore Semira Fields, a volleyball player.

She said she heard about the field trip last year when she was on junior varsity and was determined to earn the grades to qualify this year.

She pointed out that one challenge, requiring students to balance together on a log “teeter-totter” for 20 seconds was difficult. “We had to use teamwork and listen to each other.”

In the same way, Fields said, volleyball players have to listen to their coaches and teammates and not other voices in the gym during a game. That lesson applies to setting priorities, too.

“You have to make sacrifices,” she said. “You can hang out with friends later.”

She said she frequently spends lunchtime doing homework in a quiet space set aside for that purpose.

Motivational reward

“I’m glad they do this,” she said of the motivational reward for varsity athletes who earn high grades. “It encourages us, and it motivates the younger students who aren’t on varsity yet.”

“This opportunity is great,” said Ellison senior Tiryek West. “We do work hard on the field and in the classroom.”

The football player and wrestler is headed to college on an athletics scholarship.

“It’s challenging and we do have to sacrifice some free time,” he said. He said he uses a free period to catch up on work and keep his grades up even when his sports are in season.

“This means a lot,” he said of the day of challenge and fun. “This is another way to push us.”

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