When John Thurston recruited Dana DiRenzo to play Division I basketball at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., he set the bar high before she took her first college class.

“When he was recruiting me, he said, ‘I’m going to offer you a scholarship, but you have to make sure you finish as valedictorian,’ " DiRenzo recalled in a phone interview.

No pressure there.

“I was serious,” Thurston said by phone.

Thurston, who retired from coaching in April 2018, was on solid ground with his expectation. DiRenzo was valedictorian at St. Joseph in Hammonton.

“I told her I would be disappointed if you aren’t valedictorian,” Thurston said.

DiRenzo saved her former coach the disappointment: She ended her college tenure the same way she did at St. Joseph. This time, she was co-valedictorian at the school’s commencement ceremony Thursday.

Each fall and spring, St. Francis invites students with the highest GPAs among that semester’s graduating seniors to apply to be valedictorian. The honorees are selected based on academic achievements, accomplishments outside the classroom, and personal essays.

DiRenzo had a perfect 4.0 grade-point average and earned a master’s degree in accounting. That’s right: She earned her master’s in a five-year program in only four years and never got less than an A — well, with one exception.

In her freshman year, DiRenzo earned a B+ in a speech course.

“She told me at the time that she couldn’t speak in front of people well,” Thurston recalled.

He didn’t seem to care much.

“I told her she was going to take that course again,” Thurston said.

So each semester, he asked if she took the speech course again. Finally, during her junior year, she did, getting an A and keeping her perfect GPA intact.

Dana DiRenzo in action for St. Francis.
Courtesy of St. Francis College
Dana DiRenzo in action for St. Francis.

DiRenzo’s next step is participating in a scholarship program that also includes playing basketball overseas. She will go to a program in Ireland or England. She said she will know her destination next month.

She played in 96 games over her St. Francis career, making 30 starts. Unlike in high school, when she scored a school-record 1,580 points, she wasn’t a high scorer in college. Her career average was 2.4 points.

Still, DiRenzo enjoyed playing at the Division I level and the camaraderie with teammates.

“I have had a lot of fun on the team and met some of my best friends here,” she said.

DiRenzo, who is from Hammonton, faced her biggest challenge in trying to find enough hours in the day to play basketball and keep her grades up.

Playing any Division I sport is a major commitment, and maintaining a perfect GPA was also time-consuming.

“It was definitely difficult,” she said. “It didn’t leave for much free time.”

She said her high school prepared her academically for the challenges in college.

“I loved it at St Joe, and it was kind of similar to St. Francis in that there were a little smaller class sizes, good teachers, and the students got more individual attention,” she said.

Most of all, she made the most of her scholarship, a lesson for any aspiring college student-athlete.

“I am not one for the spotlight and all the attention, but I am really glad all the work I have done has paid off,” DiRenzo said.

So is her former coach, who wouldn’t take no for an answer when it came to her being a valedictorian.

“To do it in high school and college is a tremendous achievement, but what was even better was seeing the growth of her as a person,” Thurston said. “She has so much to be proud of.”