For Conor Duca and Eric Eaton, friendly competition has always been the name of the game. The lifelong friends have especially challenged each other at Timber Creek Regional High School, with good natured brags over top grades and general banter about who would outrank who by graduation.
On Thursday, June 13, this drive to succeed the duo inspired in one another certainly paid off – Duca was named Class of 2019 valedictorian, with Eaton proudly claiming the salutatorian spot.
“I’ll take two, honestly. It’s really exciting. I know a lot of people worked hard this year, and I was one of those people. It was a tight race,” Eaton said. “I couldn’t be more proud of (Conor) for getting number one. I was inspired by his work.”
“I was inspired because you kept telling me you were going to beat me,” Duca added with a laugh.
This back-and-forth came easily for the 18-year-old Sicklerville residents, who have not only gone through school together, but also played on the same sports teams and work together at Pump It Up in Blackwood. Both are proud of their accomplishments, but humbled by the honor of taking up the academic helm of their class.
“It’s a little embarrassing. A little shocking,” Duca said. “I just didn’t think, after four years, that I would end up here, to be honest. It wasn’t always my goal, so now that I’m here, I’m actually incredulous that I have the spot.”
Duca will be heading to Rutgers University – New Brunswick this fall, majoring in environmental science, specifically in the school’s Environmental Policy, Institutions and Behavior program. Inspired by his parents, who are both environmental scientists, Duca wants to focus on the policy and governmental and economic aspects of environmental science rather than spending time in a lab.
Eaton will be attending Camden County College, majoring in computer science with a focus in cyber security. Eaton will be part of the NJ STARS Program, which will give him free schooling for two years at CCC, an appealing option since he knows many people facing large amounts of college debt.
“I decided to try to temper some of that (debt) by going to a county college for two years,” Eaton said, “and seeing where it takes me after that.”
The pair spoke highly of their time at Timber Creek, noting track coach and social studies teacher Kevin Cuneo as one of their biggest inspirations.
“He’s very inspiring. He’s done a lot in his life. He’s always been encouraging me,” Eaton, who ran track throughout high school, said. “When I started out in track, I wasn’t very good. He was always pushing me to do my best, and I think that pushed into my academic career as well. I was like, ‘If I’m running my hardest, I might as well try my hardest in my studies.’”
Eaton and Duca had Cuneo for AP U.S. History junior year and AP Government senior year. Duca ran track for two years before focusing on different extracurriculars, such as Green Team and Interact Club.
“I actually didn’t want to quit track because I liked (Cuneo) so much,” Duca said. “Having him as a teacher was really nice.”
The duo also commended the school’s guidance department, giving credit to their counselor Robert Cooper for encouraging them to strive for the top of the class.
“My work ethic primarily came from my counselor, Mr. Cooper,” Eaton said, remembering sophomore year when Cooper mentioned a little more effort could push Eaton to the top. “That’s when I saw a big jump, not on my class rank, but on my ability to perform academically.”
“Mr. Cooper was the most supportive counselor I’ve ever had in my entire life. All throughout school, he’d say, ‘You should really go for this. Get this better grade. You’ll be in the running,’” Duca said. “If no one told me that, I wouldn’t have tried as hard. I wouldn’t have known I was so close.”
Duca and Eaton found some inspiration at home, too, both mentioning their moms as supporters from the start. Eaton’s mom was also one of the top students in her high school class.
“My mom has always been supportive,” Duca said. “I would do my work, but she’d hype me up about it. ‘You’re really smart. You can really strive for great things.’ It grew with me as I got older.”
Of course, in reflecting on those who inspired them throughout their academic careers, there was one person Duca and Eaton kept coming back to mentioning – each other.
“Me and him, we have such a weird friendship. We’re constantly competing with each other, but also we’re just the best of friends,” Eaton said. “I’m really happy he’s the one I’m sitting right next to.”
“I’m also really happy it’s you,” Duca said.