Strawberry Crest’s cheer team won its sixth state title in as many years on Jan. 31 and won its first UCA national championship one week later.
One of the most well-known photos of Michael Jordan is not of a dunk, a jump shot or a celebration. He’s just sitting in front of a solid background, shooting the camera a knowing look and resting his head on his hand. That hand’s covered in NBA championship rings: one at the base of each of his four fingers, two more just above them on his index and ring fingers.
If anyone in the cheerleading program at Strawberry Crest wants to recreate that picture, they now have all of the rings they’d need.
The Chargers went into the season rallying behind their “Can’t stop six” motto and more than delivered on it, winning state and national championships in back-to-back weeks to close out January and start February. The only obstacle left for the cheerleaders is deciding on the look of their latest state championship rings, which is a good problem to have.
“This season was special to begin with, and I could just tell as a coach that this team had what it took to get to the level of a national champion just by the kids’ attitudes, their eagerness to learn, the way they gelled together to get skills and how quickly they were progressing,” head coach Loveny Rivas said.
Though Crest didn’t win its first competition of the year, the cheerleaders stepped up and got right back to their winning ways. One such highlight was winning Western Conference again after last year’s loss. The Chargers weren’t flawless every time they took to the mat, but they didn’t need to be perfect to be effective.
“Just because we won doesn’t mean we’re perfect,” Rivas said. “Every competition that we had, we had an error and we tried to get better at it, perfect our skill set.”
The Chargers powered through the FHSAA postseason and won their sixth consecutive state championship in six years with an 89.70 score on Jan. 31. “Won” might be an understatement, though, as there was a 23.65-point gap between the Chargers and 2A Small Co-Ed runner-up Wiregrass Ranch after last Friday’s competition in Gainesville. Crest’s 89.70 was also the highest score of any team in any division in the 2A competition and second only to West Nassau’s 93.80 in the 1A Medium Non-Tumbling division.
“We went in knowing that if we executed, we would do very well,” senior Caitlyn Daniels said. “It was a new experience for a lot of our girls — we have a lot of freshmen — so going in, I think it was more of like a practice run for nationals and just really getting them into a bigger competition, showing them what it’s like to compete in front of a larger crowd in a bigger arena.”
Next up for Crest was that trip to UCA Nationals in Orlando. Last year, the team bounced back from a shaky warm-up (by its own admission) at the UCA competition and scored a fourth-place finish. The team was too determined to go in and do better this year to be nervous.
“We were really prepared for it,” senior Mikenzie Shiflett said. “If anything, I would say we were tired. But our coach taught us how to push through, so we got through it.”
This year, even with eight of the 18 matted cheerleaders having no UCA experience, the Chargers knocked the judges’ socks off: after winning the preliminary round, they placed first out of 45 teams in the Small Varsity Co-Ed division, thus becoming the first Hillsborough County team to ever win a UCA national championship. Though the cheerleaders were nervous after an error cost them 0.75 points, their raw score was high enough to overcome it and weather the storm of the rest of the competition.
“I was just trying to be humble going into awards, being happy with whatever we received,” senior Trinity Perry said. “I was not expecting first place. I had no words. As soon as they started getting closer and closer to first place, I wasn’t hearing our name get called and it just, like, brought me so much shock. It was disbelief. It’s still kind of hard to believe that really happened.”
Rivas, however, had a good feeling about this team’s national championship chances well before the season began. In fact, she received the team’s new UCA uniforms and gear during football season and kept it hidden away from the cheerleaders until shortly before they went to Orlando. The coach said she just knew this team was going to be special and earn the right to wear those uniforms on one of the biggest stages in the nation.
It was a pretty good hunch.
Crest’s ongoing run is one of the most impressive the state of Florida has ever seen. Ten years ago, when she first came to the school, Rivas didn’t think anything like this would happen so soon. But the people who have come through the program over the years and left everything on the mat, gave the sport everything they had to offer, made it possible for a relatively new school in the middle of Dover to become one of the best in the state as quickly as it did.
“It was just an awesome combination of coaching and athletes,” Rivas said. “It was all just together. Once we figured out what worked for us and our chemistry, the ingredients we needed to be successful, we gained momentum and continued to go forward.”
Diamond Burgos, a four-year member of the varsity team, said her expectations as a freshman were high and the ride from then to now was everything she wanted it to be. As huge for her as any championship, though, was that the first thing anyone told her about the program held true.
“Being a freshman on a varsity team, you expect to go through different things,” Burgos said. “But from the beginning, it was a family. That was the number one thing everybody made sure I knew coming into SC: that no matter what I was going through, they were gonna be there for me.”
Aloanys Gil-Ramos, who made the varsity team in her junior year, said her experience with the team has given her more confidence in her ability to overcome any obstacle she faces.
“I learned to push myself even if I think I can’t keep pushing myself,” Gil-Ramos said. “I can continue to go with what I want and what I’m striving for.”
For the coach, who has been at Crest for 10 of its 11 years running, this season was kind of like completing the journey started by the 2016 Chargers. That Crest team was the third to compete in the UCA tourney and the first team from Hillsborough County to medal in it. That, Rivas said, was also important for the program as the point when the championship culture she and her coaching staffs worked tirelessly to build felt like it was finally established, as if set in stone.
“It was an incredible team,” Rivas said. “High skill set. I believe those athletes built and carved the work ethic and success. It’s almost like that was when our team culture was really established.”
Rivas believes heart and willpower are the most important traits a champion can have and that if anyone could match the 2016 team there, it was this year’s group.
“It’s taken four years to find the group of athletes that wants to be pushed to that caliber,” Rivas said. “This group of kids wanted to be pushed to that caliber. There was a point in this season where it was explained to the kids that they could be that team, and I think that they absorbed that. They believed that. They achieved that.”
2020 VARSITY CHARGERS
Loveny Rivas Savarino