Rising Stars: Freshmen level up to varsity

Some of the newest members of Upper School have already made their mark on varsity teams in almost every sport. Here are the stories of some of the best St. John’s freshmen.
Rising Stars: Freshmen level up to varsity
This+year%2C+Baizan+plays+on+both+varsity+field+hockey+and+soccer.%C2%A0
This year, Baizan plays on both varsity field hockey and soccer.  (Maggie Hester)
Valentina Baizan

After not playing soccer for over two years, freshman Valentina Baizan was shocked to see she had made the varsity team for soccer. 

This year, Baizan plays on both varsity field hockey and soccer. 

“I expected that I would make varsity for field hockey because the people on varsity are my teammates, but I did not have any expectations for soccer since I had not played in a while,” Baizan said. 

Baizan has played sports for most of her life, but only recently has she decided that she wanted to pursue field hockey as her main sport. In December of 2023, Baizan received the news that she had made All-American for field hockey, meaning she was top in the nation for her grade. 

Ultimately, Baizan had to make a decision to leave soccer this year because playing club field hockey and having after school soccer practice was too much for her to handle.

“I just need more time and it’s time I don’t have,” Baizan said.

During the field hockey season, Baizan made many upperclassmen friends, helping her adjust to upper school. 

“I love having friends from different grades,” Baizan said. “It is amazing, and it helps with the social aspect.”  

Having more experienced friends “pushed her to work harder.” 

Baizan ended the season with 5 goals, helping the team place first in SPC. As one of two freshmen on the varsity team, Baizan has a lot of pressure to do well.

“Balancing club practice and academics is the hardest part,” Baizan said. “My parents have high expectations and I want to keep playing so I have to balance everything, even if that means that I get less sleep and more stress.” 

To maintain her mental health, Baizan will work to prioritize the things that matter to her, even if that means letting some things go. 

Booker+finished+the+winter+season+as+one+of+two+All-SPC+players+from+St.+Johns.+
Booker finished the winter season as one of two All-SPC players from St. John’s. (Jack Faulk)
Malachi Booker

Malachi Booker, the fourth ranked basketball player in Texas and 48th in US in the class of 2027, made both varsity basketball and football. Booker is a defensive end and wide receiver in football, and a small forward in basketball. 

Currently Booker has offers to Kansas State University, but he hopes to play D1 basketball at the University of Alabama or Duke University.

Reaching this point has not been easy. Booker’s dad played D3 basketball at the University of Belhaven in Jackson, Mississippi. Booker joined club basketball in 4th grade, and later played for Salyards Middle School. 

“I began playing basketball because of my dad. He played in college and was really good, so he introduced the sport to me, and gave me tips,” Booker said. 

Every week Booker wakes up at 4:45 to go to train with John Lucas II, the Rockets Assistant Coach. Booker stays after school to attend the school practice and only at around 6 does Booker return home.

Working with Lucas, Booker has improved and developed his game. His shooting percentages have increased along with his confidence on the court.

“He’s helped me with my shooting game a lot. before I was a good shooter, but I wasn’t great. Now, on Friday against Houston Christian I hit five three pointers in the game,” Booker said. “My shots have been incredible since I started going to him, and my confidence has been up. I’ve been a better player.” 

Coming into freshman year, Booker initially thought adjusting to varsity was going to be hard, but senior Sam Humphries has been a mentor to Booker, facilitating his transition to varsity.

“I thought everybody was going to be mean about it and were not going to respect me. But the team has been really nice about it. Nobody really cared,” Booker said.

Being a varsity athlete, Bookers spends most of his day practicing basketball, which leaves him little time to work on his homework. 

Regardless of his new time constraints, he enjoys being on the varsity team because he finds a brotherhood bond. Booker says he feels like he is the little brother of the team because all of the other players are older than him. 

He hopes to be a mentor and help the future freshman develop their game and confidence.

“Even if you aren’t the best right now, you’re going to get better, it comes with age. I’m good right now, but I’m going to be probably 10 times better whenever I’m a senior. I’m going to be bigger, stronger, faster, and a better shooter,” Booker said.

It+would+be+great+to+someday+be+on+the+Olympic+team%2C%E2%80%9D+Lane+said.%C2%A0
“It would be great to someday be on the Olympic team,” Lane said.  (Courtesy of Braden Lane)
Braden Lane

During the Prep Slam tournament in Atlanta, Braden Lane won the final match 9-7, winning first place in his weight group. Ranked 1st in Texas and 11th in the nation, Lane is a member on the varsity team and competes against wrestlers with more experience than him. 

It took a lot of effort and dedication to get to where Lane is today. He started wrestling when he was in second grade, and he competes year-round for the club Gracie Barra Westchase Wrestling up to six days a week during the off-season. He has trained with professional athletes such as Mark Anthony Mcgowan, champion of the 2021 Ironman finals. 

“I played hockey and golf but after one year decided I should stick with one sport, and wrestling stuck out the most to me,” Lane said. “I wrestle to see myself accomplish the goals I have and believe I can achieve.”

Though Lane did not have any formal tryouts, after showing his talent and commitment to the sport, he was put into tournaments to compete with varsity athletes across Texas. In addition to putting in the time to perfect every headlock, throw and takedown, he says he uses his faith to drive him to victory. 

“I focus on praying before getting warmed up as a pre-match ritual,” Lane said. “As long as I use my faith and put my mind to God, everything usually works out.”

Lane’s assimilation into varsity as a freshman resulted in him forming deep relationships with many junior and senior wrestlers over time through practices and tournaments. These athletes offered him brotherly advice and tips. 

“It’s fun and encouraging to see the entire team get riled up and excited during my matches as they cheer for me,” Lane said. 

Lane plans on continuing to wrestle for both club and school, and in the future, get his name out there for college recruiters.

“Since there’s no professional wrestling league, it would be great to someday be on the Olympic team,” Lane said. 

%E2%80%9CI+took+every+position+because+I+was+just+happy+to+be+playing%2C%E2%80%9D+Popovic+said.
“I took every position because I was just happy to be playing,” Popovic said. (Marin Pollock)
Thea Popovic

The entire freshman student section cheered on Thea Popovic as she raced to the finish line, claiming first place in the Milk Mile. A month before, Popovic had placed fourth at SPC, the only Maverick who placed in the top eight. 

In addition to cross country, Popovic has also played club soccer since she was eight. 

Despite constant knee injuries from overuse, she has still managed to compete in both varsity cross country meets and club soccer games. 

Popovic went into soccer tryouts confident that she would make varsity. She practices for hours every week both on and off the field and tries to stay open to coaches’ suggestions. 

“I took every position I could get because I was just happy to be playing,” Popovic said.

Despite her young age, her coaches say she reflects the qualities they look for in their senior athletes.

“I appreciate that she is extremely coachable, and very versatile,” part-time soccer coach William Mercado said. “I am excited to see the type of athlete she becomes.”

As a varsity athlete, Popovic formed close relationships with the upperclassmen on her team and was grateful for their advice on athletics and academics. The positive guidance she was given as a freshman has motivated her to help others in the future. 

“I hope I can be the role model when I’m an upperclassman, just like how I had so much help as a freshman,” Popovic said.

%E2%80%9CI+am+honored+to+have+the+opportunity+to+swim+at+St.+John%E2%80%99s%2C%E2%80%9D+Zhao+said.+%E2%80%9CIt%E2%80%99s+not+often+that+freshmen+get+to+swim+as+many+events+as+a+senior.%E2%80%9D%C2%A0
“I am honored to have the opportunity to swim at St. John’s,” Zhao said. “It’s not often that freshmen get to swim as many events as a senior.”  (Courtesy of Andrew Zhao)
Andrew Zhao

Ranked 8th in the nation in the 100-meter free, freshman Andrew Zhao often holds the pressure and position as the fastest swimmer on any team. His arrival to the Upper School was no different. 

As the fastest freshman swimmer, Zhao swims on both relay teams, along with seniors Alex Miao and Nick Hensel and sophomore Daniel Chen. Zhao has always used swimming as a way of finding his community. At St. John’s, he was able to meet and interact with new people, creating friendships between various grades. 

“I was able to make a lot of friends that I would have never even spoken to without swimming,” Zhao said. “The people here were more diverse than I expected.”

This past season, Zhao swam five events and placed top three in his individual and relay.

“I am honored to have the opportunity to swim at St. John’s,” Zhao said. “It is not often that freshmen get to swim as many events as a senior.” 

Zhao is known for keeping the mood light-hearted on the team, but he says the fear of letting them down kept him in check for SPC. As someone who does not usually get nervous for any race, Zhao views meets as a fun environment spent with friends, but he says SPC should be different. 

“I really tried this championship,” Zhao said. “It was going to be my first SPC, and I did not want to let my team down.” 

%E2%80%9CWhen+I+could+walk+and+run%2C+I+was+put+into+tennis%2C+and+I+just+loved+it+ever+since+and+I%E2%80%99ve+never+looked+back%2C%E2%80%9D+Johnson+said.
“When I could walk and run, I was put into tennis, and I just loved it ever since and I’ve never looked back,” Johnson said. (Courtesy of Kayden Johnson)
Kayden Johnson

This past summer, Kayden Johnson, one of 128 contenders, competed in the Texas Slam and took home first place. Johnson has also won multiple Level 2 tournaments and placed third in a Level 1 tennis tournament. 

Johnson achieved number 1 Girl’s 14 and under singles player in Texas. 

Born into a tennis family with both her grandparents and parents playing, it was no surprise that Johnson found herself playing tennis as well.

“When I could walk and run, I was put into tennis, and I just loved it ever since and I’ve never looked back,” Johnson said.

Johnson began her tennis career at five and growing up Johnson admired Coco Gauff. Johnson was both an athlete and actor. At eight years old, Johnson made the choice to quit acting and pursue tennis.

Every week Johnson practices at McGregor Park for three to five days. Most times she hits with her friends and coaches, but on some occasions, she rallies with college athletes. 

“The college players hit harder than me. When I hit with them, I learn to absorb their power and make a play instead of finding myself in a match unable to do anything when my opponent is smacking balls,” Johnson said.

Despite all this, Johnson keeps in mind the possibility of “choking” a match. Johnson tries to keep a positive mindset under pressure — even if she does miss a couple shots. “Pressure makes me play tight but at some point, I have to get over it and start playing my game, win or lose,” Johnson said. 

When the choking mindset sets in, Johnson jumps around and tells herself positive things. Her mom says this is to shake out the negative energy and to get her mind off of the negativity.

“I do this to get my mind off of the fact that I’m choking right now. It really helps you because it’s all mental.” Johnson said. “You may be missing the shots that you were making. That has nothing to do with your game, it’s your mentality that is the most important.” This year is Johnson’s first year at the School. Making new friends has been easy for her, but managing the workload and her tennis schedule has been a challenge.

“I definitely needed to get used to the work here. I’d be really tired from the crazy amount of homework that these teachers give some days,” Johnson said “It was a little hard to keep up during the first month. But now everything is fine.”

Johnson is happy to be a part of the varsity team and is ready to try her best in every match. Over the next few years, Johnson wants the team to remember her by her tennis mindset. She wants the team to know to keep playing because one point can shift momentum and never give up until the match is over. 

“No matter how much you’re losing by and think there is no return, just remember all it takes is one point to shift momentum and never give up until the ball bounces twice on match point,” Johnson said.

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Aien Du, Online Section Editor
Aien Du ('26) joined The Review in 2022 as a freshman. She loves fashion and the color pink. Autocorrect changes her name to Alien.
Isabella Adachi, Staff Writer
Isabella Adachi ('27) joined The Review in 2023. She has watched Gilmore Girls all the way through three times.
William Liang, Staff Writer
William Liang ('27) joined The Review in 2023 as a freshman. He is Richard's brother. He likes ice cream and, for his first job, he wants to work at Baskin-Robbins.
Marin Pollock, Staff Writer
Marin Pollock ('26) joined The Review in 2022 as a freshman. Her favorite movie is "Casino Royale," and she has has a golden retriever puppy named Bear!
Maggie Hester, Staff Writer
Maggie Hester ('26) joined The Review in 2023 as a sophomore.

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