Head coach Rachel Carey was nervous Feb. 2 as the Foundation Academy competitive cheer team prepared to head out for its performance at Exatech Arena at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center on the University of Florida campus in Gainesville.
The team’s warmup had not gone very well, which did not bode well for the team’s optimism going onto the mat for the potential first state championship win in competitive cheer in the school’s history. Any little mistake that could be made was made during that warmup. Several of their competitors, such as Tampa Catholic, had solid warmups by comparison.
“They were in our heads a little bit,” Carey said.
Prior to going out, the team gathered around and prayed together for a good performance. The message was simple: Whatever happened in warmups stays in warmups. That seemed to have calmed down the jitters as the team took to the mat to give its performance.
To Carey’s delight — as well as the contingent of FA fans who made the trip — the routine went off without a problem. Within that span of a few minutes between warmup and the routine, the team gelled to perform for an audience. That nervous feeling slowly gave way to the feeling they could actually win.
“It was the best feeling because … I didn’t know after warmup if we had a shot,” Carey said. “Once we hit the routine, and I knew the other teams didn’t hit theirs, I knew we had a shot.”
That was an even more stressful wait. Unlike in sports such as figure skating or gymnastics, the judges do not announce scores immediately after a performance, so teams do not immediately know what they scored.
“It’s subjective, so you never know where it’s going to fall,” Carey said. “Are they going to want difficulty, or are they going to want execution and hit? You never know.”
The names of teams slowly were released as the results for the large, non-tumbling team division were announced. Tampa Catholic — the team that had a perfect warmup — came in third place. The anticipation was high as the audience waited to see who would be announced for second place: Suncoast High School.
First place: Foundation Academy.
Euphoria. After a state runner-up ranking in 2021, the team had finally broken through to the top.
“It was unreal,” Carey said. “It’s my third year with the program, and each year I had goals for the program. It was a sense of relief and great accomplishment that it all paid off for that.”
Back in Winter Garden, athletic director Lisa Eaves received the news shortly after. She wanted to be at the competition, but two football players were signing their letters of intent at the school, and she had to be present for that.
When it officially was confirmed, tears came to her eyes because of what the moment meant — not just for the program, but for the entire Foundation Academy community.
“It’s huge for the school,” Eaves said. “Seeing their hard work come true, you can’t ask for more than that. It’s fun seeing the kids beginning to believe that we can compete and be a premiere athletic program. Cheerleading is setting the standard for what it takes to win the championship. It’s exciting to say.”
And the team is not done yet. With hardly a chance to let the victory sink in, the team now prepares to compete against the rest of the country at the UCA National Championships at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney World during the weekend of Feb. 12.