March 30, 2005 - Surrounded onstage by a group of her peers - at that moment guised as 1950s high schoolers caught up in the complexities of teen romance - Stephanie Koeppen twirled, spun and danced her way across a colorful set inside Marana Middle School's auditorium, belting out "You're the one that I want," followed by a few perfect pitched "ooh, ooh oohs."
Moments later, an audience of several hundred rose to their feet, bursting with applause as Koeppen, at center stage, smiled proudly under the spotlight.
The eighth-grade starlet admitted she was nervous just before taking the stage, making her acting début in her school's production of "Grease" March 15.
But, at the same time, playing the lead role of "Sandy" was a thrill ride for this 14-year-old singer-songwriter-actress hopeful, who started liking the songs from the hit musical years ago, and said she always imagined singing them in front of an audience someday.
"And now here I am," said Koeppen, a student at Marana Middle School. "At first I was nervous, but then, after the first night, I was so excited to do it again."
Koeppen's pre-performance jitters never showed once she stepped onstage that night. And her confidence shined even brighter during an encore performance three days later.
The past nine weeks of rehearsals had been a constant crescendo building up to that moment, Koeppen recalls.
"I never really acted before," she said modestly after garnering several standing ovations for her first performance. "That was my first time acting in front of people ever. I had to get used to it."
While she may have turned heads during the musical, playing the lead role was a new adventure for Koeppen, who considers herself a singer before an actress, but could best be described as a bit of a do-it-all.
Not only does she sing, act, dance, play the piano, write her own music and have her own rock band, she's also an athlete, a straight-A student and president of the student council.
"She's the type of kid that will be involved in everything she can be in," said Ivy Sweeney, her drama instructor. "There are kids that you just can't wait to hear about what they're going to do with their life, and she's one of them."
Last year, Koeppen had a small part in the school's production of "The King and I," in which she sang in the chorus. This year, Sweeney said she took a chance by putting Koeppen in the lead role.
"Usually you cast somebody who can act before you cast someone who can sing," Sweeney said. "That's not what I did. She is a very talented singer, but she's working on her acting ability."
Sweeney's risk paid off when Koeppen performed the role to the top of her ability, proving that she was the right girl for the part.
"She has really blossomed as an actress as this nine weeks of rehearsals have progressed," Sweeney said.
A not-so-average eighth-grader
Koeppen begins her day just like any ordinary eighth-grader. She wakes up at about 5:20 a.m. and catches the bus to school at a quarter to seven.
But from there it could be another 12 hours before she's home again.
Her school day is typical, but it's the after-school activities that require some serious time management skills, juggling musical rehearsals, soccer, student council activities, band practice, and finding time to study, do homework and play the piano.
When asked what drives her to be so involved, "I just enjoy it," she says, simply. "It keeps me busy."
But don't be fooled by her modest response. Koeppen has high hopes of becoming a professional singer-songwriter and knows her hard work will pay off.
Her father, Mark Koeppen, describes her as a determined, goal-oriented, go-getter. But he's often the one responsible for getting her to many of the places she needs to be.
Koeppen lives with her father and two younger sisters, and visits her mother and half-brother in Phoenix every other weekend and during the summer. Her parents divorced when she was 7.
At first impression, Koeppen appears reserved, but she warms up quickly, especially when stepping onto a stage, where her confidence and powerful voice come unexpected from her small frame.
"I might come off as shy at first," Koeppen admits. "But when you get to know me, I'm definitely not shy."
She's been performing in front of crowds since the fifth grade when she sang the National Anthem during an area Little League baseball ceremony.
In January, Koeppen was one of the youngest performers to sing at the Southern Arizona Acting Festival where she received an overall rating of "excellent," competing against some of the top high school students in the state. Her rendition of "Hopelessly Devoted" prompted one judge to exclaim, "I can't believe you're in eighth grade."
But it's not all spotlights and glamour for this local starlet - she's still a student, and apparently a pretty good one.
As president of the Marana Middle School student body, Koeppen is involved with organizing school dances and pep rallies, and recently went with her council on a retreat to Prescott. She's preparing for a leadership convention coming up in May, which most of the middle school student councils across the state will attend.
Regardless of how busy she is, Koeppen said she always finds time to do her homework at the end of the day.
Her Monday evenings revolve around piano lessons, which she's been taking for the past seven years, steadily learning notes and scales. But she says she's better at playing by ear than at reading music, which is why for the past four or five years she's been writing her own compositions. And she's no stranger to performing at piano recitals.
"I probably started taking it seriously when I was in about second or third grade," she said. "I love to sing and I like to be in front of people ple performing."
At home, Koeppen has been working on several self-written piano-vocal combinations that draw from her personal experiences.
"Just things I'm feeling in my life," she says.
"Waiting" and "Who You Are" are the names of a couple of those songs. "The Things I Regret" is another song Koeppen wrote, which she says is about "all those things you wish you could take back, but you just had to leave behind to look forward and forget."
Koeppen lists Alicia Keys and Green Day as two of her musical influences, though she has her own varying style of pop melodies. She may only be 14, but she's already certain she wants to be a professional singer-songwriter.
"Go for it," says her father, joking that he could see her warming up for Green Day. "She says she's going to buy me a car someday."
Koeppen's musical talents may run in the family. Her father has been playing guitar and writing his own songs since his high school days.
Koeppen took her musical abilities to another level earlier this year when she a few friends formed a rock band and performed at the school's talent show.
After a couple of changes to the lineup, the band - Koeppen on piano and vocals, Zach Baker on bass, John Zwick on rhythm guitar, Dylan Miles on drums, and Casey Clark on lead guitar - have been performing around town, collectively known as "Forin Policy."
The band practices about three times a week at Miles' parents' house, where it shakes the walls with its high-energy, electric punk and pop rock sound - a change of pace from Koeppen's own arrangements on the piano.
"We mostly do a lot of our own stuff. I would say it's kind of pop rock," Koeppen said. "But some of our stuff is more punk rock."
Band members spent the evening of March 17 testing their sound on the outdoor stage at Coyote Trail Elementary School, practicing for their expected performance shortly before 6 p.m. at the school's carnival April 1.
They recently performed at Marana's Founders' Day festivities March 19. Koeppen considered that performance the band's best to date.
The band has about six original songs and is working on a few others, but it is also known to do a few Green Day covers. Koeppen's Wurlitzer piano currently shows up in only one of the songs, but she's working to fit it into others.
Koeppen will attend Marana High School next year, where she plans to be involved in the school's performing arts scene and student council, and hopes to join the volleyball and softball teams.
But despite her obvious talents, Koeppen remains humble for someone who's achieved so much at such a young age.
"I think she knows that you can't let it go to your head," her father said. "I'd like to say I've tried to steer her in the right direction."
Sweeney agreed, going as far as describing Koeppen as "wholesome."
"You usually hear about all these kids that are talented and how bratty they are, and she's not. She is like what everybody wants their daughters to be like," she said. "She's such a sweet spirit."