There are times during Robinson High cheerleading practice when the girls get lost in the moment and memories — and expect Tina Maiorana to give them the same pep talk they would receive every day after school.
"We've all said this at one point during practice, that it's like she's on vacation and she's going to come back," junior Ashton Scott said. "I know it sounds weird, but it feels just like that."
It has been more than four months since Maiorana, Robinson's cheerleading coach and a business education teacher at the school, died suddenly at age 34.
Today, the Knights will compete in their biggest meet of the year, the state competitive cheerleading championships in Kissimmee.
At the end of their routine in the Class A large classification, just as they've done after every performance during the competitive cheer season, they will shout their former coach's name.
They all know "Miss Tina," as she was known throughout the Robinson community, is watching.
"It makes it easier for us because we have something to fight for, we have something to dedicate this season to," senior captain Taylor Falcon said. "She's been high school cheerleading for me."
Last season, Robinson advanced to the state final and finished fourth out of 21 schools. At the beginning of this season, which spans football Friday nights into competition season in December culminating with this weekend, Maiorana pushed them to do better.
"She's always been that pusher behind us," Falcon said. "She would tell us, 'You need to have this season. You don't have a choice in the matter.' "
Maiorana is never far from their thoughts. Their team shirts bear her initials in bright pink, her favorite color. Scott, who said Maiorana was like a second mother, has the coach's initials tattooed behind her left ear.
"She was like our best friend," Scott said. "Before I started cheering here in the eighth grade, she made me a varsity cheerleading jacket with my name on the back. It was like she already wanted me to be on the team."
Some girls would spend their lunchtimes in her classroom, where they could talk about anything — even boy problems. There were Wednesday night TV viewings at her home and dinners at Chili's, her favorite restaurant.
"She would always say, 'I don't need kids. I already have hundreds of my own,' " said Dawne Crosby, a team parent who has helped coach the team since Maiorana's death.
News spread quickly on Sept. 23 that Maiorana had been found dead in her South Tampa home — she had been diagnosed with a heart condition as a child and had a family history of cardiac problems. But the team still practiced that afternoon.
"At first they didn't want us to practice, but we didn't want to be alone," senior captain Heather Ravner said. "If anything, even if we didn't practice, we wanted to be with the team. We still ended up having a practice."
Tumbling coach Jeff Melesky took over the team. But Maiorana's teachings still motivated them.
"At the beginning of the year we weren't very close, but Tina used to say how she wanted us to be like a family," Ravner said. "But we really didn't get along. Her passing away kind of brought us together. In a weird way, she made us a family without being here."
Ravner said she could never do a standing tuck — a tumbling stunt that is mandatory for most squads — but remembered all the times Maiorana would encourage her and she kept trying to finally perfect the move.
"Every time I go through it, I think, 'This is for you,' " she said. "This is why I'm doing it. I'm not just doing it to get better. I'm doing it because she's watching me, and I know she'd be so proud."
At last month's Western Conference meet, Robinson went into the finals in fourth place, trailing only county powerhouses Bloomingdale, Durant and Freedom. The Knights finished seventh out of 19 teams at regionals. And they beat South Tampa rival Plant multiple times.
Melesky said he couldn't have predicted it; Robinson has nine first-time varsity cheerleaders.
"Tina has had a lot to do with it," Melesky said. "We wouldn't be anywhere near where we are without Tina. When you have someone who makes that big of an impact on your lives, it's a special thing."
Eduardo A. Encina can be reached at email@example.com.