They came from far and near last weekend to determine Florida’s best in competitive cheerleading. The 2021 Class 1A and Class 2A Florida High School Athletic Association’s Competitive Cheer State Championships were held Friday, Jan. 22 and Saturday, Jan. 23 at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland.
While the competitive cheer teams came from as far south as Key West, as far west as Fort Walton Beach and everywhere in between, there were five local teams competing — The King’s Academy, Palm Beach Central High School, Wellington High School, Seminole Ridge High School and Park Vista High School.
“Qualifying for the state finals is an impressive achievement for any squad in competitive cheer,” said Samantha Smith, an analyst for the NFHS Network’s broadcast of the FHSAA state competitive cheer finals.
During the Class 1A championships on Jan. 22, TKA competed in the Large Non-Tumbling division. The Lions, looking to improve upon their third-place finish from 2020, competed against five other teams in the finals, including defending state champion Baldwin, Tampa Catholic, Lake Highland Prep, Robinson High School from Tampa and University Christian School from Jacksonville.
TKA won the division in 2019. This year, despite a solid performance, the best the Lions could do was register a score of 84.3, which was good enough for another third-place finish. Baldwin successfully defended its title with a score of 86.3. Tampa Catholic took second with a score of 85.7.
Despite the third-place finish, head coach Jenn Allen was proud of her team’s performance in Lakeland. “We give all the glory to God for the chance to even compete this year,” said Allen, who has coached competitive cheerleading at TKA 14 years. “Our theme this year was to be consciously grateful. In Lakeland, we put together a strong performance. Everything went well. I was jumping up and down at the end of the routine. We had huge energy. You practice for perfection, and you perform the way you practice. That’s what I tell our team. I always tell them to recover well during routines, and they did.”
During the Class 2A championships on Jan. 23, Palm Beach Central was one of eight semifinalists seeking to qualify for two slots in the finals in the Large Non-Tumbling division. With strong morning performances in the semifinals, Palm Beach Central and Cooper City High School earned those two spots in the finals, joining Lake Gibson High School from Lakeland, Coral Glades High School from Coral Springs and Lake Brantley High School from Altamonte Springs.
Palm Beach Central’s strong score in the semifinals was the result of focusing on fundamentals in the weeks leading up to the competition.
“We drilled the basics and really worked on the little things,” head coach Capella Flaherty said. “In the end, those little things gave us the big score we needed to be one of the top two teams to advance.”
Flaherty’s team was looking to improve upon its second-place performance in this category in 2020. However, the Broncos earned a score of 80.0, good enough for a fourth-place finish. Lake Brantley won the division with a score of 86.0.
“Once we found out that we had beat out six other teams to earn our finalist position, we were more focused than before,” Flaherty said. “They had the drive and the want to put it all out there and give the best performance they could. Yes, we placed fourth, but I have always taught my athletes to be grateful. The girls were extra grateful and appreciative that they were given the opportunity to participate at all, even if it was a much shorter season.”
Wellington competed in the Class 2A Medium Non-Tumbling division. The Wolverines were one of five finalists in this category, along with Celebration High School, Lake Howell High School from Winter Park, St. Cloud High School and Lakeland High School.
Leading up the actual competition, Wellington head coach Heather Brodnicki focused on her team’s entire body of work throughout the season.
“All season, we have been concentrating on hitting all stunts,” Brodnicki said. “We even had a ‘nail-it’ board. When we hit all our skills during the routine, we hit a nail in the board. So, before they took the mat at the state finals, I reminded them about our nail-it board. I always tell them that I love them, and they make me proud.”
Lakeland put together a powerful and convincing performance that showcased its athleticism, strength, coordination and teamwork. No other team could match Lakeland’s score of 87.1, which also won the state title in the Extra Large Non-Tumbling division in 2020. Wellington finished in fourth place with a score of 77.7.
“When they came off the floor after the state competition, the team was disappointed,” Brodnicki said. “I hugged them and told them there is a great deal of risk in competitive cheer. It’s a high-risk, high-reward sport. I also told them I was so proud of the progress they had made in three months. There were a lot of great elements that they hit. They are a great team, and I am honored to be their coach.”
Two of the three teams in the Medium Co-Ed division were Palm Beach County squads — the Park Vista Cobras and the Seminole Ridge Hawks. The Cobras, coached by Acreage resident and Wellington Cougars competitive cheer coach Patty Gailey, were the defending state champions in the Medium Co-Ed division. Seminole Ridge won the 2019 state title in the Medium Non-Tumbling division. The third team in Medium Co-Ed was North Port High School. In the end, Park Vista emerged as the back-to-back state champion with a score of 70.9. North Port was second with 68.3, and Seminole Ridge was third with 61.5.
Despite seeing some early errors during her squad’s performance in Lakeland, Gailey remained upbeat during her team’s time on the mat.
“I knew we could win,” Gailey said. “I told them to believe in themselves and visualize their routines. The talent to win was there. This was my proudest moment as a coach.”
Despite graduating seven seniors, Gailey is cautiously optimistic that Park Vista’s winning ways will continue in 2022. “We have a huge group of juniors and some younger talent, too,” Gailey said.
In the days leading up to the state finals, Seminole Ridge head coach Tamara Licavoli was cautiously optimistic about her team’s chances in Lakeland.
“We knew they could perform under pressure,” Licavoli said. “In cheer, anything can happen in a given performance. I believe the team was ready, but the lack of opportunity to compete in larger settings was a big deterrence. States was a large venue that only a few of our athletes were accustomed to. I know that if they had more opportunities to perform prior to that, it would have played out differently. This team can very easily rise to the challenge. It was an honor and a pleasure to coach them, and I cannot express to them enough how proud we are of them.”
Prior to making the trip to Lakeland, Licavoli put the state competition in its proper perspective.
“It will come down to who hits their routine the cleanest with the least amount of mistakes,” Licavoli said. “Regardless of what place is taken, it is nice to know that we are competing against the best, and it will be a hard-fought battle.”
Four other Palm Beach County teams also participated in Lakeland. They were William T. Dwyer, Boca Raton, Jupiter and Suncoast high schools. In the Class 2A Small Non-Tumbling division, Dwyer did not emerge from the semifinals, while Boca Raton finished seventh in the finals. Jupiter was the defending champion in the Class 2A Medium Varsity division. The Warriors finished second to Winter Park High School this year. In the Class 1A Small Non-Tumbling division, Suncoast was one of 11 squads competing for three spots in the finals, and the Chargers did not advance, just missing the cutoff.