Strawberry Crest’s cheerleading team has won yet another state title, but this one came in a season unlike any other — and that’s not just because of COVID-19.
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The Chargers came out of the 2020-21 competitive season with their seventh consecutive state championship, extending one of Florida high school sports’ most impressive runs of success in a year where COVID-19 made it difficult for all kinds of sports teams to keep all their players active at the same time. Crest wasn’t immune from that at all.
“With COVID, every day was a brand new day and had its own obstacle,” assistant coach Loveny Rivas Savarino said. “We kept putting our best foot forward.”
But the kicker is that surviving COVID to reach the top again is only part of what made this season so special — and difficult — for Crest.
“It’s a Cinderella story, but because our name is so big people don’t understand how it’s an underdog story,” Savarino said.
The Chargers have carved out a reputation as a force to be reckoned with in the state’s 2A Small Co-Ed division over the years. This season started with the team harboring the same expectations as always, which were heading into UCA national competition after winning the 2A Small Co-Ed state title, but that abruptly changed in mid-October.
Crest started the season with just one male competitor rostered, and his departure from the team in mid-October meant the Chargers had to move to a new division. You can’t compete in co-ed with a roster comprised entirely of girls, so the team moved to the 2A Small Varsity division at that point. And for a team with just two seniors on the roster — many underclassmen from the 2019-20 state and national championship team opted out of the season due to COVID concerns — it was especially tough to hear.
“We already had a routine and we were working on it, so it was kind of drastic to get that news,” Savarino said. “When we did, we sat the girls down and told them what had happened. We didn’t really wallow in it for too long, I guess. We told them the information and that we had to make a change and put our best foot forward.”
Coincidentally, the team’s motto for the season was “Keep pushing forward.”
Switching divisions was a much bigger deal than it may seem from the outside. It meant the team had to completely rework its choreography from the ground up. It took several weeks for the team to get comfortable with a new routine adapted to meet the needs of a completely different score sheet than what it was used to.
“The stunting score card is very different from Co-Ed,” Savarino said. “We had to have longer stunt sequences. Usually dancing in Co-Ed isn’t as important… the thing in Co-Ed is you highlight the boys.
As if that wasn’t tough enough, then came COVID. Crest not only had to teach itself the new routine made from scratch, but it also had to go to nearly every competition with an incomplete roster due to quarantines.
“COVID made it hard for us to put people on the floor because girls had to quarantine,” Savarino said. “We had to have a long list of alternates. The routine wasn’t crisp early on because we never had the same roster in each competition. Mostly the same choreography, but we did not get consistent with the roster until one week before regionals. We were able to keep that same roster through states and that was the first time we had any consistency. This year was more of just feeding the mentality of the kids and keeping them mentally healthy, helping them understand what’s going on. Like it’s not that we’re struggling, it’s just that we had so many substitutions… you would have a full lineup but by 2 p.m. there would be COVID cases in the school, and you’re missing a few cheerleaders. It was a constant grind.”
Savarino said the majority of the season was spent “getting comfortable with what we were doing” against the odds, and some good performances throughout the season showed the team there was still reason to be hopeful for that seventh ring.
And the girls quickly realized they were capable of weathering such a storm.
“The first two times (someone had to quarantine) were a little stressful, but after a while we got used to having to make do with what we had knowing anything could change at any moment,” senior Samya Paris said. “Being able to adapt quickly was something we all had to learn how to do. The second time somebody got quarantined — of course, it was a big thing every time — but by then we knew it could happen to anybody at any point, so everybody got ready to go into any position.”
But when the time to compete at regionals finally came, Crest was ready to go. The Chargers capitalized on a second-place finish at regionals and won the 2A Small state championship on Jan. 23.
“These girls were just ready that day,” Savarino said. “We did have a fall at states, but so did everyone else. Everyone had an error. Everyone fell once. Chiles didn’t fall but had two bobbles, and two bobbles equals one fall. I’m very proud of the girls. The routine they put on the floor wasn’t watered down because of COVID. We put a great, difficult routine on the floor despite the odds.”
For veteran Chargers like Paris, who has been with the team for three seasons, it was refreshing to prove they could still be successful even in a new division outside of their comfort zone.
“It felt more like we were making our own legacy instead of upholding one that was already there,” Paris said. “We had been winning for so long in Co-Ed. Switching to all girls, now we’re the first one in all girls — so let’s make our own legacy and get our own win.”
In a normal year, the Chargers would already have competed at the UCA national championships at the ESPN Wide World of Sports. That tournament, originally scheduled for Feb. 3-5, was moved to April and Crest fans can expect to see the team try to defend the national title it won last year. The Chargers are practicing three days a week to stay sharp without putting too much physical stress on their bodies in an unusually long season.
And no matter what happens at the UCA event — though the team obviously wants to repeat what it did last year — getting through this season has taught these girls a valuable lesson.
“I’ve learned to never stop trying because there’s always a solution to the problem,” Paris said. “We always found a solution this year and that’s definitely something I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.”