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‘He knows how to brighten your day’: Francis Scott Key graduate Justin Rieger made lasting connections

Francis Scott Key senior Justin Rieger says being part of the boys soccer team last fall was a high point of high school.
Francis Scott Key senior Justin Rieger says being part of the boys soccer team last fall was a high point of high school. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

Perhaps Francis Scott Key High School can one day create a spirit award and name it after Justin Rieger.

That’s what teacher Michelle Brilhart keeps talking about, she said, whenever she mentions Rieger’s name. He’s about to graduate from FSK after four years of making friends and memories, and Brilhart said she saw him develop into a leader in his time as one of her advisory students.

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“I could go on and on about his participation and his love for FSK, but when I say he is one of a kind, I genuinely mean it,” Brilhart said via email. “Justin has a personality like no other. Justin comes to school every day with the most upbeat and positive personality and outlook on life. He genuinely loves life and his excitement everyday is contagious. He knows how to brighten your day, every single day.”

Rieger said he cherishes his time spent in high school, where he played soccer and tennis for the Eagles and served as treasurer for the Class of 2020. And while he said the last four years seemed to go by in a flash, he won’t be forgetting the last few months anytime soon.

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The coronavirus pandemic put an end to his athletic career, before Rieger could participate in his senior season with Key’s tennis team. As schools closed and spring sports were canceled, he was left in a funk, he said. March 13 was the last day students and teachers saw each other in the same building, a date etched in Rieger’s mind.

“You never know what’s going to happen. Now I think it’s going to affect me ... the rest of my life,” he said. “I think I’m going to live every day like it’s March 13th from now on. Do everything the best I can.”

Rieger holds a 3.37 grade-point average, and Brilhart said he has been a leader in Francis Scott Key’s Young Life and Fellowship of Christian Athletes groups. He plans on attending Carroll Community College for two years before transferring to another school in pursuit of a secondary education degree to become a middle school math teacher.

Rieger also has experience with Carroll County Outdoor School as a counselor and intern. After hearing a friend was going for an internship, Rieger said his interest was piqued.

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“I went for it and I instantly fell in love with it,” Rieger said. “I love getting outside, hiking, and being in nature. It seemed like the perfect fit for me, so I figured why not go back?”

One of Rieger’s goals as a senior, Brilhart said, was to make 10 new friends. Rieger didn’t have any names, but instead made a list of students after seeing someone eating alone in the cafeteria, or walking the halls keeping to themselves. His teachers allowed him to eat lunch during a different period so he could achieve his goal, and Rieger connected with a new student.

The two soon exchanged numbers, and Brilhart said Rieger stayed connected and checked on his friend when he could.

“There’s more than one story like this about Justin,” Brilhart said. “Justin has a huge heart and cares about people. He thrives on making people feel important and does not hesitate to surround them with his outgoing and positive influence. He is truly one of a kind.”

Rieger said he’ll miss delivering high-fives in the halls, and sharing stories and experiences with classmates. But being part of FSK’s boys soccer team last fall might be his favorite moment of high school, he said.

The Eagles put together a playoff run and played in the Class 1A state championship game, the program’s first state finals appearance in 33 years. Mountain Ridge prevailed 3-0 to win the state crown, but Rieger said the season’s journey was indelible.

“When I say it may have been the greatest feeling in my life, I think it was,” he said. “The Friday before when we won the [state] semifinals, coming into school the following Monday, the week of states, it just felt like a totally different atmosphere. I’ve never seen anything like it. I felt like a superhero. I felt like I was on top of the world.”

Being able to take the field at Loyola University Maryland’s Ridley Athletic Complex, and seeing the bleachers filled with Francis Scott Key faithful, left its mark on Rieger.

“I still struggle to find words for it sometimes. It kind of takes my breath away,” he said. “My eyes just lit up looking over in those stands. I think my jaw actually dropped.”

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