Monday, July 16, 2018

Tragedy, tenacity helped shape Ridgewood valedictorian Johannah Cummines

NEW PORT RICHEY — Even if her daily routine didn't permit calories to melt off, Johannah Cummines would deserve to pick anything on the menu.

Life's menu, really. But in this instance, Panera Bread's.

"Thirty minutes of beach volleyball burns 2,000 calories," she said recently, mulling over selections. "So I'm not exactly worried about calories here."

Cummines has earned the right to skip the quinoa and go right to the chicken tortellini alfredo/cinnamon crunch bagel combo. Having endured tragedy as a preteen, and after years of planning and late nights studying, Cummines is set to graduate Thursday as Ridgewood High's valedictorian.

"She began in the ninth grade telling me that she wanted to be valedictorian," said her mother, Chenell. "From then, she just took it and ran."

She's tops in her class at volleyball, too. Cummines will play beach volleyball for Florida Atlantic, her academic success covering her schooling in full.

"Definitely worth it," she said. "FAU, you can see the beach from the football stadium, and how can it get better than that?"

Cummines credits "a lot of planning" for her 4.72 grade-point average. But she pauses to recall what made her so focused so early, supposing it stemmed from when she was as an aspiring volleyball player at Chasco Middle School. Then-Ridgewood standout Mary Kujak, whom she admired, was the 2013 valedictorian

But her teammate and close friend, Sara Pretto, has a different theory.

"What made her strive so hard for everything, was to make her mom happy, to say, 'Hey, look at us. We pushed through this.' She did it all for her mom," Pretto said.

Chenell, husband Robert, Johannah and older brother Robert had what Chenell called a "pretty perfect" life until one morning when Johannah was 11.

"I remember finding out," Pretto said. "Hannah was walking to school and she's crying. I didn't even know what suicide meant when she said, 'Dad committed suicide.' We got to school and I talked to her, in confidence, and she said her father killed himself. The world kind of stopped."

Though mother and daughter tear up at the memory, Cummines conveys a remarkable perspective and strength.

"What I went through, fifth grade, sixth grade, seventh grade, a lot of it was a blur. I really don't know. I was so young," she said. "My brother got the worst of it. I clung to my mother and I have barely any memory of the feeling. My brother was the one with the good memory. He took it harder. … I mean, I still have my mom, still another woman to look up to."

Sports helped. With a batting cage at the house, she gravitated to softball. At age 12 the nickname "Jojo" emerged from having so many West Pasco Little League teammates also named Hannah. (The "Jo" in Johannah is actually "yo;" Cummines pronounced as though there's no "e").

Volleyball became her thing, though.

"Our goal was to never let the ball drop," Pretto said of their Chasco practices. "Even throughout middle school, Hannah was the captain. I was always trying to keep up. It was exciting for me to have someone like that."

The relationship, which started in the first grade, will continue at FAU, where Pretto also is headed on an academic scholarship.

"(She) and Sara would just stay after practice," said Emily Daviss, who took over as Ridgewood coach their freshman year. "They would take down the nets themselves, just consistently working on her approach, everything. Jojo is probably one of the hardest-working players I've ever met. She's a perfectionist."

And a realist. Division I-A college indoor volleyball teams want their hitters to stand in the 6-foot-6 range, and that wasn't happening with the 5-foot-6 Cummines. The "Sandy Owls" are in their fifth beach volleyball season and just attained a first-ever national ranking, so Cummines is joining at a good time.

"She's gonna do really well," Daviss said. "I have no concerns about the academic part, with her time management skills. In her mind she needs to know her structure for the day. I think she's ready to expand and leave, and have a new experience."

Cummines doesn't get rattled by much these days, although she's worried her planned six-minute speech at Thursday's graduation might fly by because "I know I'm gonna go faster when I'm nervous."

Naturally, she started writing it months ago. And without giving anything away …

"I don't think I'm that funny, but there are some funny parts. I took it as my chance to give tips to other people, how to succeed."

And if she scrolls back through her life choices to date, she'll need a lot longer than six minutes to pass on those tips.

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