Cleveland High School girls’ basketball coach Poeko Waiwaiole doesn’t like to give out individual awards. Basketball is a team sport, and for years, end-of-season recognition for best defense, best offense and overall excellence seemed more than enough.
This year, Waiwaiole made an exception. He created the Stella Blaha athlete of character award, named for the graduating senior whose resilience, maturity and leadership in the face of adversity deserved special recognition.
Blaha, 18, graduated from Cleveland last week, part of a class of 400. She leaves the Southeast Portland school with a trail of achievements in sports – making varsity teams in three sports from her freshman year onward – and in the classroom. She earned a rigorous International Baccalaureate diploma and a state seal of biliteracy for her proficiency in Mandarin.
As impressive as her accomplishments is Blaha’s poise, despite what she’s lost. Her mother, Tanya Correll-Blaha, died of brain cancer during Blaha’s sophomore year. Those who know her say Blaha stepped up to help keep her family afloat.
“Despite her intelligence and her athletic talents and all of her achievements, she’s so humble and down to earth,” family friend Dana Sexton said. “I think she’s probably the kindest, most well-rounded human I know.”
Blaha was among the more than 3,000 Portland Public Schools students who were awarded diplomas over the past few weeks. Graduation ceremonies at Providence Park capped off a return to semi-normalcy for the class of 2022, whose members spent senior year in classrooms and attending dances and sports games, after learning from computer screens for much of the previous two years.
Statewide, more than 40,000 Oregon seniors aimed for their diplomas this spring. The Oregon Department of Education won’t have an exact count of how many graduated or how the class of 2022 graduation rates stack up until early next year.
From the moment Blaha entered high school, she excelled, no matter the season. Outside of rigorous classes, Blaha made the varsity golf, volleyball and basketball teams as a freshman. Earning her International Baccalaureate diploma required extensive advanced coursework and she has studied Chinese for 13 years, since enrolling in her elementary school Mandarin immersion program.
Blaha’s path to a diploma was beset by complications. Her mom was diagnosed with brain cancer during Blaha’s freshman year and passed away barely a year later. And just as the Blaha family began adjusting to their new normal, COVID-19 hit, upending the world and forcing Blaha and her younger brother Hank into online school.
The two children stepped up to look after themselves, and each other, during their mom’s illness and the turmoil that followed, dad Steve Blaha said. Blaha learned to make pasta and Pad Thai when mom’s cooking was no longer available and coordinated rides to practices and games for then 12-year-old Hank.
“When things are going crazy, we look to Stella, and there she is,” Steve Blaha said. “She’s a rock-solid person when it comes to being able to count on somebody.”
Correll-Blaha used to tell her daughter that everything happens for a reason. When Blaha was injured in sports, her mom would suggest maybe the universe was giving her a chance to slow down. Blaha tried to remember that when COVID-19 hit. The Blahas, still finding their footing without their wife and mother, were torn from their busy sports and school schedules and anchored at home, where they could talk and grieve and establish a new routine.
“In some ways that was kind of good for us. We were going through things pretty separately for a while,” Blaha said. “When COVID hit we were all at home. I think we got closer during those first few months.”
Blaha was one of two Oregon seniors awarded a $5,000 scholarship from the Oregon School Activities Association and OnPoint Community Credit Union this spring for her academic and athletic accomplishments. She rose to the rank of co-captain on all of her varsity teams and made it to the state tournament this year in golf.
Blaha leads by example on the basketball court, Waiwaiole said. Despite injuries or personal hurdles, she showed up to practice ready to work hard. She knows when to step up to rally or calm her team, he said, and doesn’t get hung up on whether she is starting or on the bench.
“She’s made such an impression, not just on me, but on our whole program,” Waiwaiole said. “She really exemplifies so many of the qualities that I think are important and that you’re trying to teach all the athletes.”
Next year, he said, the Stella Blaha award will go to the player who best embodies the qualities she brought to the team.
Blaha is headed to the University of California, Los Angeles in the fall. She hasn’t chosen a major yet, but she’s leaning toward business. She plans to continue studying Chinese and hopes to study abroad.
“I’ve had a lot of people say, ‘Oh, your mom would be so proud of you,’” Blaha said. “It’s really bittersweet.”
Author: Sami Edge, [email protected]