PALMETTO - Whirling and churning like the storm that serves as its school mascot, the Manatee High School cheerleading team seemed an easy pick to win this year's Manatee County Fair trophy.
Injuries had rival Palmetto High School sidelined for the second year in a row, and the Hurricanes had drilled their routine every day for weeks. Lowered pressure plus practice had the girls set up for what they had visualized before the competition: Perfection.
Then, only a minute into their routine, one of their four human pyramids collapsed. A minute later, a second one fell.
What never collapsed was the team's spirit. Pushing through the miscues, the 20-plus girls kept their momentum, tumbling, lifting, jumping, and back-springing their way into the school's second consecutive championship.
"Even though we fell, we showed heart," said senior team captain Klicia Strong.
Heart, and a powerful aerial performance, were the difference for the team, which came to Mosaic Arena
at the Palmetto fairgrounds looking to repeat its 2013 victory. The Hurricanes edged runner-up Braden River High School, and -- most importantly -- finished two places ahead of the last team that beat them at the fair competition, Lakewood Ranch High School.
The victory was well earned. Five teams competed in this year's field, two more than last year. All brought physically intense routines to the arena, combining the toughest tricks cheer squads do with mat routines that would have played well at a varsity gymnastics meet.
In the end, the teams that placed best kept their tumblers, leapers, pom-poms, and cheering in synch and just a little over the top.
Rebecca Tilson, one of three contest judges, saw what she needed to hand the trophy back to Manatee High School.
"When I'm judging, I look for the overall execution of the team," she said.
Members of the squads gave their all. Even in the exhibition category, which brought five youth and junior varsity teams to the arena floor, girls stumbled off the padded mats breathless after their routines. Others leaned on teammates for support, and more than a few tears fell from the eyes of girls who limped away.
Ina Baden, who started the competition 19 years ago, ran the floor show as a "director emeritus" this year. She said she just can't walk away from it.
"I love this competition," she said.
Sponsor First America Bank put up enough prize money to send the Manatee High School team away with $600. All the teams received several hundred dollars for their efforts.
Baden said the competitors earned it.
"That's a lot of bake sales," she said.
Also competing in the varsity bracket were Southeast High School and Bayshore High School. The exhibition event featured teams from Imagine School in North Manatee, Braden River High School, Manatee High School, and two 5 Star Elite cheer club teams.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.