By James Bennett, Jr.Ledger Correspondent
LAKELAND – Bartow High School was named the Polk County Invitational Grand Champions Saturday afternoon at Lakeland High School, but varsity head coach Lori Joliff still believes her squad has plenty of room for improvement this season.
“Our team this year is a younger team,” Joliff said. “And every time we get on the mat it matters. We can’t be inconsistent with our execution. Your stunts and skills have got to hit every time and that comes with you being mentally tough. That’s what we’re dealing with being a younger team. To be able to turn the page if we make that mistake.”
Tenoroc, Lake Wales and Lakeland High School also took home first place trophies Saturday. Tenoroc placed first in the large non-tumbling division, Lakeland took home first in medium tumbling, and Lake Wales was first in medium non-tumbling. Auburndale won the first place trophy in the small tumbling division.
Bartow Cheer won first place in the large co-ed division, JV co-ed and middle school divisions. They will prepare for nationals with the Chase to State competition next week , an invitational tournament for the best state varsity programs; hosted by Bartow High School. Lakeland and Ridge Community will also attend next week’s competition.
“We have 44 teams coming around from across the state of Florida, by invite only,” Joliff said. “It’s the teams that made it to finals last year at state. We have 996 athletes, over 100 coaches, it’s going to be an all-day thing but it’s going to be a good opportunity to see the best teams across the state.
Bartow Middle School coaches Melissa Giles and Laura Thurston, Yellow Jacket JV Coaches Kelly Lane and Megan Knox, and varsity assistants Deanne Taylor and Nikki Morris have worked with to create a new routine for the 2017 UCA National Competition in February. Their routine includes new stunts; some only recently made legal at the varsity level, like the Paper Doll stunt.
“This is probably the most difficult routine Bartow Cheer has ever done,” Joliff said. “But it’s got to be a lot cleaner and we have to execute.”
Other Polk County teams, like Lakeland, now have seniors that have worked on competitive cheer stunts since before they began high school. Coaches like Lakeland head cheer coach Crystal Abdom said that learning the correct technique from experienced coaches early makes for increased ability as they develop at the varsity level.
“I don’t think people realize how much work goes into this,” Abdom said. “It’s not just on Friday, you see that with Bartow. I don’t think they get the credit they deserve. They were every single week at 7 a.m. this summer. I’m hoping that they get the credit for the hours they put in.”
Lakeland’s captain Hayden Wright said that her squad made progress in the four days of practice leading up to the competition.
“At the beginning of the week we were falling all over the place, we were really discouraged,” Wright said. “But we pulled it together and we worked really hard to hit everything. Our goal for the season is to move onto the final round in States and win first second or third; hopefully first place. We want to go to the second round in Nationals this year.”