Photo by Ben Beitzel

Photo by Ben Beitzel

Jessica Bilz didn't set out to be valedictorian.

It was a surprise when she looked at her transcript after freshman year and saw the No. 1 ranking for her class at South Gwinnett. But it planted the seed Bilz nurtured for another two years.

"My mom and I kind of sat down and said, 'Let's see if we can keep this up,'" Bilz said. "It wasn't like a, 'You have to be valedictorian' thing.'"

But in order to do that, Bilz had to make some choices. In middle school, Bilz was on USTA and ALTA tennis teams, spending a lot of time on a sport she devoted herself to several years earlier.

"As high school started, I didn't really have a lot of time to play outside of school," she said.

Bilz focused her energies on class and tennis at South. Two years later, she was still No. 1 and her mindset changed.

"I'm like, all right, I'm going to work hard for this, I want it now," Bilz said.

Today she'll stand in front of the rest of her classmates and give a heartfelt valedictorian address.

"At first I was going to try to be funny," Bilz said.

But she realized not everyone has the same sense of humor and, on the advice of her friends, changed the tenor of the speech.

"I'm just going to pour out what I've been wanting to say," Bilz said.

There were times when all the work didn't seem worth it, especially this year.

Between tennis and an internship and five AP classes, some doubt about her goal sprouted up.

"I got a little bit of senioritis," she said. "I was feeling like, well, it's OK if I don't get it. I just really don't want to do homework right now.

"I wasn't exactly sure at the end of first semester if I was going to get it. So I was trying to put myself (in the mindset) of, 'OK you did your best and whatever happens happens.' Then I got my transcript and my mom and I freaked out in my bathroom."

Second semester, she was able to relax just a bit.

"I didn't do every extra credit project or stress out about every quiz," she said.

Which worked out pretty well since Bilz was either at her internship or tennis every night of the week.

The internship at a physical therapy office was part of her grade, though, so sometimes she missed practice.

"Grades are obviously rather important to me," Bilz said with a smile.

But she also would go work out at the gym after leaving the internship, so most nights Bilz didn't get home until after 7 p.m. -- when it was time to start on homework.

"Which is sometimes ridiculous," said Bilz, who began playing tennis when she was 8. "My AP lit class has at least an hour of reading a night. And there's not many hours left before I like to go to sleep."

Wake-ups come early at her house.

"I get up at 5:45 -- unfortunately," she said with a laugh. "I'm not one of those people that rushes to get their homework done in the morning. I like everything done at night. But I don't like to rush in the morning."

Maybe because that's how she spends a lot of the rest of her day.

Bilz knows she sacrificed some things to be valedictorian and a varsity athlete.

"My social life," she said. "A lot of my friends don't have that afternoon stress of getting everything done that I do. They all go hang out after school and I miss some of those things.

"I've noticed that some of my family time at home, we all eat dinner at different times. My brother's off doing different things, I'm off doing my internship and tennis matches. So my family and my friends a little bit."

But it paid off and once Bilz gets to Georgia in the fall, at least one thing in her life won't involve as much pressure.

"I don't want to let tennis go," she said. "I plan on joining an intramural team. We're thinking of maybe getting a team together. But I'm looking forward to tennis just being for fun, not having to worry about winning."