Instead of letting COVID-19 dampen their spirits, members of the Catoctin High Class of 2021 on graduation day took pride in how they adapted to and overcame obstacles during the pandemic.

“It’s true, these months have been unprecedented, but that hasn’t stopped us,” Sophia DeGennaro said in her address. “Catoctin’s community grows stronger with each passing day and closer with each challenge that we face. This year, COVID threw down the gauntlet, and we all accepted the challenge.”

More than 150 seniors decked out in navy blue caps and gowns filed into Cougar Stadium under overcast skies as mist poured off the mountains in the distance Thursday. Cameras recorded the ceremony for viewers at home and projected images on two large screens in the stadium.

Before the high school band kicked off with “Pomp and Circumstance,” soon-to-be graduates reflected on their experiences as the masked class.

“I missed being here in this building, especially with my friends and everything,” Lily Smith said. “It’s a really great school. It’s small, so you really get to know everyone and connect.”

Learning in a virtual environment didn’t keep Smith from excelling. Her white National Honor Society stole was covered in pins representing her accomplishments, and honor society cords dangled from her neck. She was also editor-in-chief of the yearbook and played tennis, basketball and soccer. Though Smith said the pandemic made it difficult to tour colleges, she’s chosen to attend Virginia’s James Madison University to study business.

While some graduates found themselves on a stage for the first time Thursday, senior Isaac Dugan was no stranger to the spotlight. He’s been on a stage many times before as an active member of Catoctin’s drama program. Going through his senior year in the middle of a pandemic, he gained a newfound appreciation for Catoctin.

“I don’t think I realized how much I actually liked being at school,” Dugan said, “until it was gone.”

Getting to know teachers is part of the experience, he said, and one educator he admired received the Cougar Paw Award at commencement — music teacher Evan Felmet, who directed the band on graduation day. Though graduation felt like a celebration, senior Ryan Orr admitted there were points in the year he felt like the world was against him and his classmates.

“You just wanted to stop, but our class, obviously we didn’t, and we just kept going, and now we’re here, and it’s so special,” Orr said.

The stadium in which graduates turned their tassels holds a special place in the heart of Orr, the Cougars’ quarterback. The COVID-19 pandemic stole much of the defending state champions’ football season this year. Orr suffered a concussion early in the truncated spring 2021 season, and state playoffs never took place. Despite the setbacks, Orr secured a spot on Clarion University’s football team in Pennsylvania. He’ll be studying fitness and nutrition.

Waiting to be called to the stadium, Ivy Jocson and her classmates played hangman in a classroom to help the time pass. Jocson described herself as more of an in-person learner, so virtual classes were a bit of a challenge. She holds fond memories of school life before the pandemic, like when the International Club — of which she was president — took a field trip to learn how to cook outdoors.

Jocson was eager for the graduation ceremony to begin. “All in all, we made it,” she said.

Just before the graduates received their diplomas, Principal Jennifer Clements commended the class on how far they’d come.

“While your experience certainly has included many activities that were painfully absent since last March, there are many things that the challenges of the pandemic have brought to the forefront,” Clements said. “... Remember what you have come to recognize as your priorities, and ensure that you are using those to guide your decisions and actions. Appreciate the people and the things around you. I hope you will use your powers for good.”

Follow Mary Grace Keller on Twitter: @MaryGraceKeller

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