As many know, a cheer season is filled with ups and downs. As a team is formed in May, it will typically take 6 to 7 months for a team to find their identity. Sometimes it takes longer.
While I have written many stories about the 2015 miracle mini team that made it to summit and written the book Welcome to Mintland. By luck, the following year, I was able to witness one of the most amazing stories in summit history. Let me explain.
A team that makes it to summit is quite literally made up of an entire childhood of preparation. Summit is a culmination of effort lead by a curageous team of coaches that inspire a team of atlhetes to vitually “run through a brick wall” to perfect the one adorning routine that will define a level in that year for all of eternity. It’s a big deal and the winning team will be known forever as the best team in the world in that division forever.
The feeling when you hit at Summit, is the best feeling you will ever have in your entire life—a single, identifiable moment from which the trajectories of your entire cheer career can be defined. Simply put, it is the culmination of the sacrifice, blood, sweat ,tears and dreams of a team.
Now days, it seems too many teams are invited to the Cheeleading Summit. (it’s actually single digit percentages of all teams across the country) the reality is, many Allstar teams will never get the opportunity to make it to day 2 at Summit. It is even more difficult moving up your placement on Day 2, but it can be done.
Within each division at Summit there are numerous teams who are invited to the coveted final competition that seeks out the best of the best from across the country. If you ask any club cheer Owner, Director or Coach they will tell you the most challenging and competitve division is J3.
There are many reasons for this, one prominantly is the number of teams to qualify and compete in the J3 division at summit. The other is that during this time in 2016 large and small gyms alike would have to assemble J3 teams as some gyms did not have the numbers with the talent or skills to compete level 4 or 5. Some talented athletes who could throw level 4/5 skills and stunts would many times have to compete down a few levels to field a team. This is a very real issue with most gyms and leads to an enormous amount of J3 teams across the nation.
The Stingray Allstars was no excpetion that year. With Stingrays being a large gym, they can typically field two Level 3 teams. A small J3 team (Fire Rays) and a large J3 (Scarlet). The difference is at a large gym, not many athletes if any, compete down. Most if not all, are level appropriate. This is the blessing and the curse of being in a larger gym. Typically, you are not able to “stack” your team with higher level athletes. Many are pulled up to level 4 and some compete down depending on positions in the gym (flyers and base needs per team).
There are unique challenges with coaching J3 teams. With most agreeing it is the most competitive division, it is also the most difficult to coach. Junior teams are filled with many athletes that cheer in middle and high school that compete with All Star practice time, that will typically interfere with complete stunt group practices. There are also commitment challenges as many athletes are getting used to or struggle with the work load in high school. There are atheltes that often times do not understand the commitment level they signed up for and can end up moving on or giving up. Needless to say it can be very late in the season before a team gets a strong continuity in reps with the full routine.
The Fire Rays were no exception in 2016. The beginning of the season was filled with many challenges. The team and coaches worked very hard to fill gaps, adhere to their high standards and enforce accountability. The team worked extremely hard.
Sometimes in a season a team will dominate from start to finish and you know they are going to go far. The 2016 Fire Rays were an extremely talented team, but they were not that dominant team durning Nationals season. They did earn an early at-large bid to Summit at Chattanooga but the rest of the season was filled with a few disappointing moments with losses due to legalities or other random events.
Fast forward three months later. Twenty eight teams head to summit to compete in the Small J3 division. The first day saw the wildcard teams compete for the one coveted pass to make it to the main round with the at- large and paid bid teams. After the first round of competition, there were a total 11 teams that made it to the finals on day 2. The Fire Rays were one of those teams. Their routine was far from perfect but they made it, they were in 10th place going into day 2. Making it to day 2 at summit is an enourmus accomplishment for a team, especially a J3 team.
Heading into Day 2, I was fortunate enough to be sitting with my daughters team at the time, the Red Rays, they also made it to Day 2. A few hours before the Red Rays went on stage we were assigned to watch a sister Rays team, it was the Fire Rays.
Ironically, the Red Rays were also in 10th place going into day 2. As a parent, I knew what being in 10th place on day 2 meant. There would be no Summit championship for the Red Rays on this day, but we would fight to the finish and see how far we could climb the standings by bettering our performance on day 2. Scoring at Summit is different that typical competitions. At Summit there is no 50/50, 25/75 or best day scoring. All the scores are wiped clean for day 2 and you start from scratch. Every day is a new day, but it is extremly tough to move up in the standings as many teams hit zero and the competition and score cards are normally maxed out.
I began to ask the Fire Rays mom when the team was scheduled to go on. We knew Fire was in 10th place and the teams compete in reverse order of standings. There were 11 teams so they would perform second. She said, “They are in warm ups now actually. Can you excuse me just a second I am getting a phone call.” She listened for a few seconds turned and ran she seemed very panicked.
After the call, she walked back toward me stunned, seemed a bit off and did not have the typical anxiety level that a parent normally has before their team performs and honestly she seemed shocked. I asked, “What time do you guys perform?” She looked at me with a deeply concerned look and said, “Well, we were in warm ups and one of our athletes may have broken or serverely twisted her ankle.” She is not going to be able to go. I looked at her and responded, “Oh my gosh, I am so so sorry.” It looked like she needed a moment, so I wished her well and continued to track down my daughters team. In my mind, I knew what a combination of being in 10th place and a last minute injury would typically mean for the Fire Rays.
For accuracy sake and research for this article, I asked Latonia Priester the team mom and flyer Amy Stimson for the Fire Rays at the time, how exactly everything went down after that phone call.
From Amy Stimpson: “We were warming up tumbling and I looked over and Haley was on the floor in severe pain. The trainers from the competition ran over to help her and everyone was in shock and some began to cry. Within seconds Coach Bird was one the phone with Coach Tiffany.“
From Latonia: “Coach Bird called Tiffany immediately and she a asked if she could borrow a strong base to fill in for Haley. Tiffany immediately responded Kaitlyn will be perfect.” They re-worked the routine and within 30-40 minutes they were lined up to take the stage, it all happened so fast.”
I asked Amy how she felt as the team was about to take the stage for their final performance for the year. She stated, “If I am being completely honest, were were pretty down and I don’t think we all felt we had a shot, but we had nothing to lose at that point. We all just wanted to go out there and do the best we could and see if we could do better than 10th place.”
Hopefully, you will never have to experience an injury in a warm up room, but it will occasionally happen. The replacement athlete will typically will not have any familiarity with the routine at all. The coaches will have to spring into action, find an athlete, choreograph that athlete into the routine as best as they can, all within 30 minutes. As luck would have it, the Scarlet Rays our Large Junior 3 was also at summit and they also made it to day 2.
As the day progresssed, the Red Rays finished the day in 8th place we started the drive back to Marietta. In normal fashion, my family would scan the twitter feeds to keep everyone up to speed on the remaining Stingray teams as the award ceremonies commenced. We started creating a checklist of Stingrays teams and where they finished on the day. We saw a congratulations to the Fire Rays on there finish at summit. I asked my wife, “Where did they end up?” the answer stopped me dead in my tracks.
The exact moment when exactly like this :
The parents in the viewing area were in complete shock. The team and the coaches were in complete shock and disbelief. From one of the Fire Parents: “Honestly, once they announced the top 5 teams, if I were to be honest, I thought they forgot to add us to the awards! I knew we hit, but I had no idea what was about to happen. It was literally a miracle“
From Jill Stimpson, “Going in in tenth and having the injury one hour before was heart wrenching. Then their performance was epic and the wait for awards was torture. Lol. All the emotions. We had zero expectation all we hoped for was not LAST”
The 2016 Fire Rays pulled off the impossible, going from 10th place on Day 1 to capturing the most coveted honor in Allstar Cheerleading and winning Summit on Day 2 after a servere injury just hours before.
While facing the unthinkable moments before they were supposed to hit the mat. They never gave up on the themselves, the routine or the coaches and will go down in history as pulling off quite possibly, the biggest miracle in Summit history.