Friday, February 5, 2021
Lynn Ramsey - Florida Catholic
MIAMI | One of the hardest things for a champion to do is to repeat. Immaculata-La Salle faced another daunting foe – COVID-19.
Given the chance to compete, coach Coral Buxeda and the Royal Lions conquered both foes Jan. 23, 2021 to win the Class 1A Extra-Large Non-Tumbling division at the FHSAA State Cheerleading Meet.
After surviving a tumble in the semifinals, the Royal Lions eliminated their semifinal foes. Captains Sofia Peñas, Ana Salazar and Maria Castro led the team to an 83.80-point score in the finals – their best-ever finals score – to surpass Msgr. Pace’s 73.1 and Jacksonville Terry Parker’s 71.60.
Salazar said the Royal Lions made a mistake in the semifinals that hurt their chance at a repeat. During a segment of the cheer when they’re spelling out “ROYAL” in the “Royal Lions,” they accidentally put the Crown sign where the A should have been. Despite that, the Royal Lions beat Fort Lauderdale Stranahan by a 79.6-72.1 margin to advance to the final.
“We went into the finals with an open mind, needing to fix a couple little tweaks to come out with the win,” Salazar said. “That’s the mindset going into the finals. We didn’t let anything from the semis affect us.”
Junior backspot Ivana Major said one unit of the team had to replace an injured flyer two days before state. But the team fought through the challenges. She said the underclassmen really wanted the title for the seniors.
Peñas said having to compete twice in the same day challenged the team. She said her goal was to calm down the team members after the semifinals, then pick them back up for the finals.
Peñas said the finals routine starts with army-like precision. The cheer section hypes up the crowd and the squad. The routine reaches its summit with a big pyramid at the end – one that has to be held for the last 45 seconds to 1 minute of the 2-minute, 30-second routine. She called that the most photogenic part of the routine.
“Everyone is tired. It’s hard, but we still accomplished it,” Peñas said. “That’s why it’s my favorite part of the routine – ending with a bang.”
EVERYONE RETURNS, NEWCOMERS ADD MORE
Buxeda said the biggest key to improving the score was returning everyone from the 2020 championship team. She said the returning experience made the team stronger, giving the coaches and captains time to acclimate newcomers to the team.
“That helped a lot in our stunts,” Buxeda said. “They were the missing pieces of all the stunting we needed to do last year. Those newcomers help us out tremendously.”
Newcomers played key roles. Isabella Rubio jumped into a base role, while Paulina Marin became one of the team’s best flyers after never having done cheer before. It helped Marin that stepsister Isabella Sacasa was next to her.
It wasn’t only the newcomers who had to learn new roles. The changes came at the top with senior Maria Castro becoming a first-year captain to join senior backspot Sofia Peñas and senior base Ana Salazar. Castro also switched from base to flyer.
Major switched from tumbler to backspot. While she wasn’t a senior, she played a strong leadership role. Major said she grew in confidence talking to teammates older and younger. Major credits assistant coach Emily Rodriguez, a captain two years ago and an all-star teammate, with helping her grow as a leader.
“She’d tell me everything is going to be OK,” Major said. “That was one of the main reasons my leadership skills have grown.”
Salazar said it helped having every segment of the team represented in the captains’ roles. “We’re able to see every side of the routine,” Salazar said. “Everyone had a captain to speak to with questions and advice. You have someone who understands every part of what you’re doing.”
The captains were part of a group of nine seniors who carried the team. The senior class also had flyers Alexia Menendez, Kaitlyn Laurido, Tiffany Reyes and Sacasa; base Camila Casique and backspot Monse Vivas. Buxeda said they were like assistant coaches in the formation.
Buxeda said this group of seniors was her first four-year class. “This senior class is the cream of the crop for us,” Buxeda said. “They made this season easy for us. They knew how we worked, and they knew how the team needed to work. They knew what to do to win one more time.”
Peñas said that the seniors wanted that state-championship feeling. Part of that was helping the newcomers feel welcome and fall in love with the sport. “A lot of the girls knew the basic skills,” Peñas said. “It wasn’t a starting-over season. There was a close bond from last year’s team.”
COVID TAKES AWAY A LOT ...
The challenges started long before the state semifinals. As with every other program, the Royal Lions lost their offseason to the coronavirus pandemic.
Gone were six months of workouts. To make up for that, Buxeda began sending strength and conditioning workouts via Zoom to the team. Major said the coaches and leaders monitored those workouts, keeping the team accountable.
Peñas said the team divided into two. Then once on-campus practices resumed in October, the team practiced nearly every day to get ready for states. “Normally by September, we would have gone to two cheer camps and some football games. We would’ve already bonded,” Peñas said. “From October until now, there were a lot of back-to-back practices. That benefited us in terms of getting together.”
Disappeared were the team-building exercises. Universal Cheerleaders Association on-campus camps replaced trips to distant UCA camps. CDC guidelines discouraged off-campus pool parties and other gatherings that would help bond the team.
“We did a couple virtual game nights,” Buxeda said. “We had this idea on Zoom to do breakout rooms. We broke up the teams into random groups, then we’d ask them questions to get to know each other.”
Adjusted were opportunities to share the faith. Buxeda said the team still went to Mass before competitions. The day of their state-final triumph, they went to Mass at St. Joseph Parish in Lakeland before going the three-tenths of a mile to the RP Funding Center for the competition. The team had to quarantine from the school for five days because of the travel outside of south Florida.
... BUT NOT EVERYTHING
But some things didn’t change. The team still took part in a toy drive for children in foster homes. They collected the gifts and delivered them to the children. “For some of my girls, it was eye-opening,” Buxeda said. “It was amazing to see how a gift could change a little kid’s life.”
The pandemic did not erase the team’s high expectations. The state repeat was almost expected due to the large group of returnees. After finishing 10th last year at the UCA High School Nationals, the team is now targeting a top 5 finish at nationals April 23-25 at Walt Disney World near Orlando.
The practice time COVID-19 took away was nearly returned when the pandemic pushed the nationals back from their usual spot two weeks after state. Peñas said the Royal Lions will benefit from the extra three months.
However, she harbors no illusions about the competition. “The national competition is insane,” Peñas said. “There are schools from around the nation. The routines are amazing.”
Salazar said the team will take the extra time to add more difficulty to the routine in the hopes of attaining that top-5 finish. “It’s been a goal for four years,” Salazar said. “We are such a driven team. I really think it’s possible.”