North Stonington - Asa Palmer was a sophomore when, as is probably the case for most high school kids, he wondered what else was out there, what was outside the walls of Wheeler High School and its grand total of 218 students.
Palmer transferred to Ledyard High School and enrolled in the school's vocational agricultural program.
"I missed knowing everybody that you saw in the hallway," Palmer said of the year away from the school. "I missed knowing who every kid was. I tried going somewhere else; I had that attitude that this is nowhere special. But it's a special place."
Palmer returned to Wheeler as a junior, back in the same town where he was raised as part of the fourth generation to work at the Palmer Farm, a dairy farm in the Clarks Falls section of town that his family has operated since the 1800s when his great-great grandfather purchased the land.
Now a senior, Palmer ran his final home cross country race at Wheeler on Oct. 9, winning the 3.1-mile meet against Lyman Memorial, Plainfield and Fishers Island in 17 minutes, 45 seconds.
Today, Palmer enters his final postseason with the Lions. Though slowed by a heel injury, Palmer will compete in the Eastern Connecticut Conference championship meet beginning at 3:35 p.m. today (the girls' meet begins at 3 p.m.) at Norwich Golf Course.
Having finished 20th in the ECC last year in 18:27, Palmer hoped to cross the finish line in the top 10 this year prior to his injury, but is now hoping to do his best in today's race and aim for a top eight finish in next week's Class S state championship meet, which would earn him all-state honors.
Palmer was an ECC Small Division all-star last year and finished 21st in Class S in 19:04.
"It's a small place," Wheeler coach Marc Tardiff said this week of the high school, whose officials considered leaving the ECC earlier this year for a conference with more similar-sized schools before opting to stay.
"But the kids really care about each other. I think in larger schools you lose that community. Here, sixty percent of the eighth-graders went to kindergarten together. There's a respect among the students."
"I wouldn't want to grow up anywhere else," Palmer said this week outside the school's gymnasium/auditorium. "I think it's too bad we get some of the publicity we do (including conjecture that the school could close). I thought maybe there was something better out there, then I realized this is as good as it gets."
A walk through the lobby of the Wheeler gym reveals the deep history of the Lions, including the retired No. 14 jersey of former girls' soccer All-American Bryant Karpinski and a photo of the 1998 girls' basketball state championship team, which topped St. Paul of Bristol to win the Class S title.
More recent testaments to the successes of Wheeler's student/athletes are Ashley Iorio, an all-state girls' lacrosse player who was also the valedictorian for the Class of 2012 and is now a student at the U.S. Naval Academy, and 2008 graduate Keyokah Mars-Garrick, who was last week hired as assistant women's basketball coach at Coast Guard Academy.
Mars-Garrick was an all-state player at Wheeler who earned a Division I scholarship at the University of Hartford.
Palmer is hoping to add his name to the list of Wheeler's all-staters.
"I had him in eighth grade, so I always knew he was a bright kid," said Tardiff, a middle school social studies teacher at Wheeler, which houses both the town's middle school and high school students. "He's always talking about history and politics and current events.
"He does well in school. He's got a dry sense of humor; he's funny. He can take a normal conversation and it ends up being funny. And he's got that work ethic. He's always working."
The 17-year-old Palmer, who is 6-foot-2, 170 pounds, said he works about 25-30 hours per week on the farm during the school year. During the summer he works 60 hours or more on the family's farm, which is co-owned by his father George and uncle John.
The farm has 300 cows that are milked and about 300 more that are not. Palmer said the family figures its total land to be somewhere just short of 2,000 acres, although it is not all located together.
Palmer said he has been on the farm "as long as I can remember."
"My first word was cow," he said with a smile.
Palmer does whatever needs to be done on the farm, from baling hay to feeding and caring for the livestock. He sometimes cares for the sick animals, he said, something he has a feel for. Palmer's father majored in agricultural management at UConn, he said, and he hopes to pursue a similar path, although he has not yet chosen a college.
"It's a different breed of people you meet, it really is," Palmer said of the farming community. "It's the best. I got to be around a lot of people that were older than me and it's given me life skills … they're some of the most interesting and best people.
"My favorite part about it is you learn to live an honest life. It's a good living. It's unique. Not anybody can live on a farm."
Tardiff agrees with Palmer's small-town pride. Working at Wheeler was Tardiff's first job and he considers himself "lucky." He met his wife Sheri, an elementary school teacher, while working there. Tardiff sees his athletes involved in the debate club, student government and National Honor Society, just like any school. He watched as members of last year's cross country team graduated and enrolled in Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Boston University.
"There's enough people in the community that want to keep it," Tardiff said of Wheeler. "They believe in the school and in the education they've gotten."
Count Asa Palmer among them.
"I always have a reason to be here," Palmer said of his home town. "All my friends who graduated know. If you need me for something, you know where to find me."