It was about seven years ago when Newton High School senior Justin Zumbahlen set the path for gaining recognition as a National Merit Scholar student.

“It was in fifth or sixth grade at St. Thomas School when I started to really care about making good grades. I wanted to push myself and do the best I could do,” the 17-year-old Newton resident said when asked about the first time he took academic performance to heart in school.

The son of Phil and Judy Zumbahlen, he received a letter of commendation last month from Newton High School Principal Beth Probst and the 2020 National Merit Scholarship Program, which recognized more than 34,000 commended students for their exceptional academic promise. Zumbahlen and other commended students were among the 50,000 top scorers of more than 1.5 million students involved in the testing competition including the SAT and National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test.

He takes pride in the fact that his dedication to academic excellence at an early age earned him this honor even though he was surprised when informed of his high placement in the Merit Scholarship testing. He also feels fortunate to have been surrounded by talented students in his classes at St. Thomas and later in high school. That provided motivation to do well and provided support, too, both key ingredients to academic success.

“I feel like generally my class was good academically and I had a circle of friends who did well in classes,” Zumbahlen explained. “I learned you should definitely ask your peers for help. And don’t be afraid to ask teachers questions in class. That seems to me the best way to learn.”

Competition in academics is not the only interest for Zumbahlen. Standing 6-foot, 1-inch, he plays guard for the Newton Eagles basketball team. He also competes in the spring with the tennis squad. These add practice into his schedule with homework and studying for quizzes and exams.

“I feel like people realize I really work hard whether it’s in sports or classes. I do the best I can,” he said.

Setting his schedule also goes beyond the classrooms and courts of competition. He factors in some personal time, especially on weekends. That personal time can include playing the guitar.

“I play country or older Rock. I like the Eagles and the Zac Brown Band. What I like about the guitar is it’s more hands-on,” he said.

But he does not have any Rock star or Country Music legend dreams in his future. Zumbahlen plans to study sports therapy. He is eyeing universities at Evansville in Indiana and Maryville near St. Louis.

That career would be a good mix of his talents in academics and athletics.