No one has ever dared to question Leal's academic standing at Weehawken High School. She's been at the top of her class since she entered the school and will graduate next month as the valedictorian of the Class of 2001. She will attend Barnard College in the fall.
The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association holds an annual luncheon honoring the top student athletes in the state at the Pines Manor in Edison. Each school is allowed to select one student to attend the luncheon, provided that the students have received at least two varsity letters from their respective sport and maintained a 3.0 grade point average for the four years of high school.
There are many schools that do not have a student with the requirements to receive the honor. This year, 317 of the state association's 540 schools were able to have a recipient.
Weehawken's Athletic Director Richard Terpak, who has been fortunate enough to have had a student participate in the luncheon in each of the eight years it has been in existence, decided that Leal was the school's best candidate.
And the honor caught Leal totally off guard.
"I was very surprised to hear that," said Leal, who received her award last Sunday. "And I was certainly impressed to be among all those great scholar athletes from the state. The place was packed with students and people there to honor them. I know I'm not the best athlete in the school, but I was very proud to be the scholar/athlete from Weehawken. It's a great honor."
Leal played on the first doubles team last fall with partner Jacqueline DeNichilo. Ironically, Jacqueline's sister, Johanna, was the recipient of the same NJSIAA award two years ago.
Leal is the third female recipient of the award and this is the second time the school's valedictorian received the honor. Lydia Bazikian received the honor last year.
Leal not only plays tennis at the school, but she also participates in several other extracurricular activities, including the Extended Care Program that she is very proud of.
"As part of my community service commitment, I work at the Extended Care program at Webster School, where parents are able to leave their kids after school until they are able to pick them up after work," Leal said. "I'm a tutor and I participate in activities with them. The kids are so sweet and I love being with them."
Terpak said that Leal is an absolute joy to be around.
"Without a doubt, she's the number one student in the class and that's a fact that we're very proud of," Terpak said. "She's able to combine her academic achievement with athletic success. I have to give Angeli a lot of credit. Because our tennis team doesn't have a home court, they have to practice at the Paine Webber courts and play every match on the road. That takes a lot of travel time and cuts down on the amount of study time. But she's never backed down."
Terpak is proud that the school has always had a student worthy of the honor.
"I feel it's an integral part of the job as being an athletic director," Terpak said. "You want to be able to promote the achievements of the student/athletes, not just the athletes. We've been fortunate to have some really outstanding recipients in the past."
Terpak said that the NJSIAA Scholar/Athlete program is important because the association awards eight college scholarships at random during the course of the luncheon.
"Having that opportunity is big," Terpak said.
Terpak said that the Weehawken Booster Club purchased a plaque commemorating the honorees a few years ago and Leal's name will now be placed on that plaque.
"It's a showcase for everyone to see," Terpak said.
Leal said that she is particularly proud of the honor because it's one she never thought she would receive.
"It shows that you can balance school work with sports and still succeed," Leal said. "There are a lot of students who are very dedicated in what they do. The key is that you have to find a balance. If you find that balance between school and sports, you can do it. It's a good feeling. It shows that hard work does pay off. To be recognized by the school and by my peers is a great honor."