Cheerleaders reach new heights

PARRISH — They heard their team’s name called, but in a way the North Manatee Storm Junior Midget cheerleaders didn’t believe it.

For one, the team had never advanced past the FYD Tampa Pop Warner conference meet, and it sure hadn’t qualified for a regional tournament, so the cheerleaders didn’t expect to go any farther.

But the girls did, exceeding their loftiest expectations.

On Nov. 27, the Storm finished second in the Southeastern regional tournament at the University of Central Florida and will compete in the National Pop Warner Cheering meet at Disney’s Wide World of Sports on Wednesday in Orlando.

“When they first called our name nobody moved,” said organization cheer coordinator Ann Clayton. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so shocked in life. It came out of nowhere. I had to shove them out there. It was like ‘That’s us. Hello!!!’ ’’

Really it didn’t come from nowhere. It came from hard work and the ability to be better than 17 other teams battling for two spots from this region on the national stage.

A raucous celebration ensued on the floor and high up in Section 208 of the arena, coming from Storm football coaches and family that made the trip.

The Storm will compete in the novice division against 60 other youth cheerleading teams around the nation and will take the stage at 9:30 a.m. They have company, as the East Manatee Bulldogs Midget team will compete in the advanced competition. The Storm girls range from ages 10 to 12 and attend Palmetto and Virgil Mills elementary schools, Haile and Buffalo Creek middle schools and Manatee School of the Arts.

“I didn’t think we were going to make it, because the other teams were good,” said Madison Hall, 12, a seventh-grader at Buffalo Creek Middle School.

That means the Storm are better. They just hadn’t realized it yet. It’s a result of how vigorously they worked to get better, though.

If the girls fall on a build attempt, they bounce off the mat and try it again. If their 2:30 routine is off rhythm or out of sync, the Storm continue to work until it’s perfect. Winning fuels a diligent work ethic.

“The girls, once they got that first third-place (finish) under their belts, they said, ‘OK we can do this.’ Their confidence got built up, and now they are trying stuff that they never would have done a month ago, knowing that they are going to nationals.”

They don’t have anything to lose. They didn’t think they would be there in the first place.

“You are there to have fun to show your parents and your friends what you’ve done throughout this whole season,” Storm cheerleading coach Rachel Westcott said. “This is what we’ve worked hard for and get to compete against teams from around nation.”

The girls said they are excited, nervous and scared. If the past performances are any indication of the future, these girls will get it done when the bright lights come on.

“It’s nerve-wracking, but we are excited,” said Rachel’s daughter, Haley, 11, and a fifth-grader at Virgil Mills.