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What is winter guard? It's a real flag-raiser in the hands of the Robinson High Starlets

The Starlets, the Robinson High Winter Guard team, placed 10th out of 105 teams at the World Championship for Winter Guard International. This is just their fourth year in existence.

Courtesy of Dionne Pchelins

The Starlets, the Robinson High Winter Guard team, placed 10th out of 105 teams at the World Championship for Winter Guard International. This is just their fourth year in existence.

Robinson High School senior Kali Danile had two choices.

She could attend her prom, or she could compete with her winter guard team in Ohio.

She didn't think twice before placing her handwritten vote in the box.

All 20 Robinson High School Winter Guard "A" team members would cast the same ballot, choosing to compete in the World Championship for Winter Guard International.

"It was all or nothing," said band director Jeremy Klein, who oversees the school's winter guard program. "If one of the kids voted to go to prom, then we were going to prom. But they voted Ohio."

The team, known as the Starlets, is composed primarily of flag corps students who perform with the marching band during the fall and then transfer those artistic and athletic skills from a wide-open football field to the confines of a gym in the winter.

The Starlets won a number of trophies this year, including first place in their division at the Florida Federation of Color Guard Circuit championships.

But April marked the first time the Starlets competed in the World Championships. They were the only high school to represent Hillsborough County.

The team, just four years old, placed 10th overall out of 105 teams worldwide.

Danile, who has been on the team since her freshman year, described the Starlets' quick progression from B to AAA to AA to A.

"In my junior year (the third year), we went up to A. We're still at A," Danile said.

"It's night and day from when I got there," Klein said. "It was nothing. So the growth the program has gone through has been phenomenal."

Winter guard competitions have become better known only in the last decade.

Junior Athena Pchelins wasn't sure what was happening when she tried out for the team three years ago.

"My mom told me it was a dance team," Pchelins said. "She told me this team was really good and I was shocked when I found out it was more than a dance team.

"I was kind of like, 'What is this? What are they doing? They're waving a pole with a flag attached to it?' "

Winter guard teams do dance, but they also incorporate props such as colorful flags, rifles and sabers.

Pchelins said after her initial confusion, she fell in love with the sport. She calls her teammates family.

"It's my home away from home," she said. "We share secrets. We help each other with homework. We help each other with technique."

The team hadn't planned on signing up to compete in Ohio. After all, they were still fairly new.

"It all kind of happened last-minute," Klein said. "Most groups plan to go to Ohio way before the actual winter guard season starts."

A month into their season in early February, the judges of a smaller competition suggested the team consider the World Championships.

Athena's mother and Starlets treasurer and team mom Dionne Pchelins recalled her surprise when first told of the possibility.

"I was like, 'Oh, really? We're at that level now?' " she said. "For a four-year-old team to make it to this level so soon is kind of shocking."

But to go, the team needed school board approval and close to $15,000.

Car washes, hat drops, auctions and dinners were quickly organized.

Within two months, the travel was school board-approved and the funds were raised for transportation, hotels and registration. It cost each guard member just $50 out-of-pocket.

The 105 teams present came from numerous states and countries like Japan, Canada and the Netherlands.

"To be able to be up there and represent Hillsborough County was huge for us," Klein said.

The Starlets performed to U2's With or Without You and wore brown and beige dress costumes.

"The whole show revolved around the feeling of being with somebody, and then the feeling of being without that person in your life," Klein explained.

The younger Pchelins didn't think much about missing prom while she was there.

"I don't mind missing it. I was with my family again. It was worth it."

Sarah Gottlieb can be reached at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

What is winter guard? It's a real flag-raiser in the hands of the Robinson High Starlets 05/05/12 [Last modified: Saturday, May 5, 2012 4:31am]
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