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With flags snapping, rifles twirling and sabers spinning in the air, squads of high school color guards from across Florida competed in a color guard competition Saturday at River Ridge High. They twisted, turned, leaped, marched and strutted with the kind of precision and athletic ability that only comes with practice, practice, practice.

Boca Ciega's squad, along with seven others, came to compete in River Ridge High School's Royal Presentation of Guard Excellence. It was hosted by River Ridge's 1997 winter guard, the Royalettes.

"This is our first time out hosting a competition," said Leigh Ambrosio, the main organizer and mother of Stefanie Ambrosio, Royalette rifle twirler. "We started out by sending invitations across the state. We also recruited some sponsors here at home, so we'd be covered financially before the doors open. We really appreciate those businesses and supporters that helped with funds and time."

During the football season, the guards perform on the field along with school bands. In the winter, they train and compete, creating elaborate routines that are judged on execution, best overall effect, creativity, precision of movement and more. Saturday's competitors came from Hernando and Pasco High, from schools as close as Hudson and as far away as Citrus County and Pinellas County. The River Ridge High Band turned out to lend support.

"I'm a member of the band, not the guard," said Christina Kasm, who plays flute. "We came to cheer the Royalettes on, you know, make a little noise. They work real hard."

All the students worked hard. Some had very fancy costumes, others just dressed alike or in theme outfits. The Hudson High Guard for example, dressed in blue jeans in the style of the '50s, performed to a medley of songs from Grease. They were first up. Compared with the others that would follow, they were a small group. But they entertained the crowd with their energetic dancing and great moves.

After a brief lull in the action, (quickly filled by the music of the River Ridge band) Boca Ciega, a large, experienced troop with flamboyant costumes, took the floor.

Outside in the hallway, Hernando High was getting ready. The Hernando squad looked very slick, clad in all-black from head to toe. Their stark silver and black flags added to the effect.

"Our routine is very fast and lively this year," said Carey Prior, a ninth-grade flag twirler from Hernando. "We're performing to the theme of Mission Impossible."

The hosts from River Ridge would perform after the dinner break. Still they kept busy helping each other with hair and make-up hours before their turn.

"We're very excited about being the host," said Monica Annas, a flag carrier. "We've never had a competition here before. The routines are much more modern this year. Everyone's using more dance, very upbeat music and a lot more movement with rifles and sabers."

April Therrien, River Ridge guard captain, was having a bittersweet day.

"It's her last year on the squad," said April's mother, Linda. "April has been in guard since she started high school. She began as a flag girl, then became co-captain and now captain. I've seen such an incredible change in her self esteem. This is an excellent program for the girls, they work hard, and work as a team. And it's really wonderful to see 28 girls, all friends, care about each other the way they do."

April took a page in the program book to express her feelings in writing. Encased in a flag, April's note went like this:

This is my last year with you guys and I wish it wasn't. We have had so many great times as well as bad. And I will always remember how you accepted me into the guard family. I love you all.

As hosts, River Ridge could not win a trophy but earned a superior rating (at least a 253.5 out of an overall 300 points). The Boca Ciega squad took Grand Champion and also won a superior rating. Citrus ranked superior and so did Hernando.

Other awards were: best weaponry, Boca Ciega; best dance, Boca Ciega; and best overall effect, Hernando High.