PALMETTO -- Manatee High School cheerleaders strolled into the 18th Annual Manatee County Fair cheerleading competition 10 minutes before the show was set to begin, holding hands and waving to a small crowd of excited parents.
"I guess they are making a grand entrance," joked master of ceremonies and Manatee River Fair Association board member emeritus Ina Baden.
Manatee High School went on to take first place Monday, earning back the enviable first-place traveling trophy, an $800 check from event sponsor First America Bank and bragging rights from last's year's winner Lakewood Ranch High School.
Lakewood Ranch High won a $600 prize for second place, and Braden River High School won a $400 check for third. The event included performances by the three school's varsity teams, as well as junior varsity teams from Braden River High and Manatee High who did not compete for points.
Baden said she was disappointed that Palmetto, Bay
shore and Southeast High School didn't participate this year, as schools receive $200 just for coming out. But she said she understands that funding and staffing is changing in many county high schools, and some programs are going through transformations.
The performers were judged on stunts, pyramids, and dance, as well as the difficulty and overall appearance of their performance, said Rebekah Tilson, one of three judges from outside Manatee County on Monday evening.
Those judges named Manatee High the winner Monday. The team performed a routine that opened with a series of tumbles and lifts and included a mash-up of Britney Spears and N'Sync music.
The victory was special to a senior class that considers a rivalry with Lakewood Ranch High a key part of competing at the fair.
Senior Lauren Stewart breaks the rivalry down.
"We were back-to-back champs. Then, last year they took it from us. Actually, we gave it to them on a silver platter. Because we kind of blew it. We were falling all over the place," she said all in one breath. "This year we took it back."
Manatee High won the competition in 2007 before Lakewood Ranch won it in 2008 and 2009. Manatee High School would win for the next two years, before losing to Lakewood Ranch last year.
Another senior, Olivia Sousa, 18, said her favorite part of Monday's routine was the beginning, when the team is not in groups and doing tumbling and flips on their own.
"It's sad," Sousa said about graduating this year. "But it makes me happy because I won this with this team -- this team means a lot to me."
Despite the competitiveness, sportsmanship was very much alive on Monday evening. Manatee High School participated along with the crowd in Braden River High's performance. Palmetto High School came out in their uniforms even though the school didn't participate in the performance this year. And many of the girls hugged and congratulated each other; some cheer together outside of school.
On Monday, the audience also enjoyed a pre-performance show by three teams -- a "mini" group, a youth-aged group and an under-18 group -- from 5 Star Elite Cheerleading in Bradenton.
All the high school teams went wild for the teams that would not compete against them in points, but entertained the crowd with high-energy routines to mash-ups that included artists such as Ke$ha, Jay-Z, High School Musical and Beyonce.
At one point during the last performance, a cheerleader lost her shoe. Her partner picked it up, pitched it off the mat, much to the delight of the crowd. The show went on.
Katy Bergen, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081