Sonoma high student shines in competition

Sonoma Valley High School student Riley O’Hara capped a remarkable run in the Poetry Out Loud competition with a captivating performance at the national finals in Washington, DC, on May 1 and 2, but faced stiff competition and made the cut not the final. round.

“I feel like I did my best, but it wasn’t quite what the judges wanted,” said O’Hara, a 10th grader. “Almost everyone there was really good! I was very impressed with many of my opponents.”

O’Hara was cheered on by his entire family: his mother, Karen; father, Bo; and 11-year-old sister, Keeley. They were accompanied by his aunt, Julie Zilliotto, of Sonoma, and Travis Beall, his English teacher at Sonoma Valley High School.

“Riley has done a fantastic job,” said Karen, a third-grade teacher at Prestwood Elementary School in Sonoma. “He performed with confidence and poise.”

She said the competition was “amazingly strong.”

“Riley came out on top and was just as strong as the finalists, but it just came down to the judges and what they liked,” she said.

The semi-finals, held on Wednesday, May 1, were divided into three regional groups, each with 18 or 19 students. Three students from each of these groups advanced to the final round of the competition on Thursday, May 2.

“There were definitely some strong reciters, but Riley was right in the top category of participants,” said Beall, who has taught O’Hara in his ninth-grade prep classes and 10th-grade honors classes.

O’Hara recited “We Are Not Responsible” by Harryette Mullen and “Sonnet 29: When, in Disgrace with Fortune and Men’s Eyes” by William Shakespeare.

“His performances were exceptional as always, especially his recitation of ‘Sonnet 29’: it was exemplary,” Beall said. “His natural talent and all the work he put in was evident.”

O’Hara planned to recite Alex Dimitrov’s “1969” if he continued in the competition.

He said he enjoyed the experience.

“I loved being able to travel so far from home and make friends from different places,” he said.

Karen thinks the trip is fantastic for the whole family.

“We met some great participants from all over the country and they were all very nice,” she said. “Riley is still the California champion, and his family and friends are so proud of him.

“When I say to my children and students: ‘Be a good winner and a good loser.’ Riley has been following this closely and has kept his head high. I couldn’t be more proud of my son.”

O’Hara reached the finals after winning class, school, provincial and state competitions. This achievement is even more remarkable when you consider that he did not progress beyond his class competition last year.

“I really had no idea I would have gotten this far,” he says. “I never could have imagined this would actually happen.”

He said the competitions helped him build confidence and improved his ability to speak in front of many people.

O’Hara said he has no plans to participate in Poetry Out Loud next year, but hasn’t completely discounted the possibility.

“If I get the chance again, I might try it, but I think once is enough!” he said.

Karen praised everyone who supported Riley during his extraordinary run this year.

“Riley and I would like to thank all of our friends and family who have sent their positive thoughts and energy for Riley,” she said. “It’s genuine, knowing he has so much support.

“He is an amazing person and there is no telling what he can achieve in life.”

Beall added, “Sonoma Valley High School is so fortunate to have Riley as a member of the student body and I am very fortunate to have Riley as a student in my class. It was a privilege and so much money to witness his mastery of spoken word poetry. Very inspiring.”

Reach the reporter, Dan Johnson, at [email protected].