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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Davis High School's McKenna Tracy laughs as Bountiful High School's Karli Ludwig rubs lipstick off of her teeth before Tracy's final Sterling Scholar interview at Cottonwood High School in Murray on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019.

MURRAY — With his backyard literally ablaze with the Pole Creek and Bald Mountain fires, Salem Hills High School senior Hyrum Devenport put his stage tech know-how to work.

"They held town hall meetings at Salem Hills High School and I was able to run the technical elements of that. That was really fun," he said.

Never mind that Devenport was under evacuation himself from what became the largest wildfire in Utah in 2018.

Devenport said he didn't plan to be pressed into service. But as a finalist in the 2019 Deseret News/KSL Sterling Scholar program, knowing how to perform under pressure can come in handy, he said.

Devenport was among 168 finalists who showcased their academic achievement, community contributions and other talents to judges Thursday during the final round of Wasatch Front region judging at Cottonwood High School.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Bountiful High School's Karli Ludwig performs a dance routine during her final Sterling Scholar interview at Cottonwood High School in Murray on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019.

The program, which was started by the Deseret News in the 1960s, encourages academic excellence by awarding scholarships and publicly recognizing some of Utah's top high school seniors. Nominees are judged for their academic achievements as well as their leadership and service to their communities.

The winners will be announced at an awards ceremony March 15 at the Little Theater of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Conference Center.

The General Scholarship winner will be named among winners of 14 categories. The contest also has two special awards, the Gail Miller Community Service Award and the Governor's Philo T. Farnsworth Award, which recognizes innovation.

Prior to meeting the panel of judges in his category, Devenport confessed that making it to the finals was "surreal, honestly. When I did this initially, I wasn't expecting to make it this far. So to know the judges thought I was good enough was both affirming and also kind of surprising."

In the final competition, finalists in 14 categories ranging from mathematics to dance met individually with a panel of judges where they underwent interviews. Those in performing arts categories also sing, dance, play instruments or give a speech for the judges.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Timp View High School's Natalie Lund practices the violin before her final Sterling Scholar interview at Cottonwood High School in Murray on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019.

Herriman High School's Kate Joy Darton, a finalist in visual arts, said the final round was "nerve-wracking."

But the judges "are all so nice. You can tell they're all here because they want to and they really appreciate the kids who come through this program. They're almost trained to make it very nonchalant, easy to talk to so it's really just fun. I'm having the time of my life right now," she said.

Darton, who packed in several pieces of her artwork to present it to the judges, said "visual arts has kind of been my best friend through all of my hard times and all of my good times. I almost like to make journal entries through all of my art so I look back and see 'Oh, this is where I was at this time' and how much I've progressed. I really like looking back and it's my own history book through the arts."

Math finalist Zach Sabey, a senior at Westlake High School, said the Sterling Scholar program has given him a lot more confidence in his abilities.

"Before this, I always knew I was good in math but I never really knew that I was that good. As I've succeeded in this competition and been able to look and reflect on all the different things I've been able to do, it's been a really good thing for myself self-confidence," he said.

Sabey said he plans to serve a Latter-day Saint mission and then return to Utah to attend Brigham Young University to study actuarial science.

"I've always been interested in mathematics, especially statistics. I really like the idea I can kind of predict the future based on the past," he said.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Mountain View High School's Ily Olsen practices the French horn before her final Sterling Scholar interview at Cottonwood High School in Murray on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019.

Then again, the past is sometimes no predictor of where life will take a person. Leslie Bennion, who competed in skilled and technical sciences education in agriculture, spent most of her childhood in "high-density housing, trampolines and small backyards."

At the end of her ninth-grade year, her family moved 4 miles to the other end of Herriman.

"It's really interesting how you can have a culture shock moving from one end to the other of the same city," she said.

Her new neighbor had a horse and asked her if she would like to ride it. That was a pivotal moment that led to her joining 4-H, America’s largest youth development organization, participating in the National FFA Organization, and competing and winning equine judging contests. She now owns two horses, Cinch and Renegade 6.

Herriman High School is so large that it's easy to get swallowed up and not feel connected, she said. It's likely more so for students with disabilities, said Bennion, who has been a peer tutor in a special education classroom.

"I saw they were getting lost in the shuffle of the school. I thought 'What can I do for them? What can I do to give back?' That's when I started a club called Special Mustang Activity Club," she said.

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The club meets monthly and members are hosted by other school clubs. It provides a "safe space" for students with and without disabilities to learn about and from one another, she said.

"They've made so many friends and have been such a big part of our high school. I always say our Special Mustangs are the heart of Herriman High School. They are truly what a true Mustang should be like," she said.

Bennion said she hopes to merge both of her passions as she attends college to study equine therapy.

"Horses, they just have special powers," she said.

Correction: Kate Joy Darton's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story as Dalton.