The girls' biggest fear also excited them the most. • When asked what their favorite part of their routine was, most of the cheerleaders shouted in unison: "pyramid!" • When later asked what part of the competition caused the most concern, the pyramid, equal parts joy and dread, topped the list. • "The pyramid is more challenging than any other part," said Brae Abdon, 10, of the Brandon All-Stars Youth Onyx team. "When you're working in other stunts, if you mess up, it's just you or your stunt group. But in pyramid, if you fall, the whole team falls."
All those emotional highs and lows will emerge when the Brandon All-Stars compete with teams from across the state in the Official Florida Championships cheer and dance competition Saturday and Sunday at the Florida State Fair.
The girls on the Youth Onyx team have practiced all season, taking first at two competitions before this.
"We're unstoppable right now," Hayden Springer, 11, said.
The girls range from ages 8 to 11. Some have trained at Brandon All-Stars for a couple of years; others just signed on this season. They're eager to compete this weekend, especially in a close location where many of their friends and families can attend.
"I think this is a big one, especially for some of our younger teams," coach Ashley Chavez said. "It's a fun event, and it's right here in Tampa. Being on our own stomping grounds is pretty fun."
The team added new elements to its routine in preparation for the competition, which requires spending extra time at practice making sure the girls have the new parts memorized. Their coaches, Chavez and Levi Brown, watch every detail. Shouts of "Focus!" and "Be sharp!" ring out on a near-constant basis.
In between drills, the girls practice their stunts and crack jokes. Their enthusiasm is boundless.
But it's not all smiles and stunts.
The routine demands a lot from the team. And while cheerleading may not be defined as a contact sport, it's not without its pains.
Just ask Ava Hulett, 8. Curled on her hands and knees in the center of the pyramid, she acts as a stabilizer for the other girls who are supposed to rest a foot on her back for balance.
But sometimes, those feet slip or miss the mark.
"They always get my arms and my legs," Ava said good-naturedly, laughing as she walked away from the stunt rubbing the back of her arm. "I only signed up for my back."
But her comments are far from a complaint — she knows every part is critical to the routine, from the bases who hold it all together to the fliers who execute the flashy stunts that catch the crowd's eye.
The team works together as a singular unit. If even one girl is missing from practice, it throws everything off. When tension arises, the coaches guide them through conflict resolution. Together, they learn the importance of perseverance and communication.
As they drilled their routine — stopping repeatedly to redo something or correct timing — they spent the most time on the pyramid. The girls have seen what happens when a team misses something on the biggest stunt. The whole crowd reacts loudly and moving forward after that can be tough.
"The pyramid is the crowd's most expected stunt," Zoe Claiborne, 8, said. "It's what they know to look for. So if we fall, the whole crowd is going to be like, 'Ohhh!' "
But the team and the coaches also know that in order to continue to receive top marks at competitions, they have to push harder and incorporate more difficult skills into the routine. In preparation for the competition Saturday and Sunday at the Florida State Fair, they have altered some of their transitions and amplified the difficulty levels of certain stunts.
The team relishes the challenge.
"If it's a harder stunt, it makes us work harder," Shamia Sanders, 11, said. "It's more demanding and it's more fun. It's not all about winning. It's about having fun."
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2443.