By Jenelyn Russo     3/18/2016

It’s been a record-setting year for Santa Margarita Catholic High School’s Varsity Song and Cheer teams – both recently traveled to national competitions in Florida and came away making school history.

The school’s 15-member Varsity Song team spent the last week of January at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, where they represented the Eagles in the UDA 2016 National Dance Team Championship, a highly competitive event that draws entrants from across the nation.

Competing in what is considered the “Super Bowl of dance team competitions,” the Varsity Song team qualified for the national event by way of their performance scores at a regional camp they attended last summer.

Upon arriving in Florida, the squad was one of 50 teams that competed in a series of preliminary rounds, with their Jazz and Pom routines scoring high enough to bypass the semi-final round and advance directly to the finals, a first-time achievement for the school.

In the final round, which consisted of the top 16 teams in each of the Jazz and Pom divisions, Varsity Song finished the competition placing fourth in Jazz and second in Pom, coming up short of first place in Pom by approximately half a point. Both routines improved on their placements from the previous year (sixth place in Jazz and third place in Pom in 2015), making their performances the highest-ranked in school history.

“It’s taken a lot of work,” admits Santa Margarita Varsity Song coach Nicole Cestone. “These teams are the best of the best in the nation. The caliber is so high. These girls accomplished a lot.”

Co-captain and senior, Mackenzie Marks, acknowledges the Song team’s steady improvement over the last four years, which has come by way of dedication and hard work.

“We were so proud of each other,” says Marks. “It’s the best we’ve ever done and we worked so hard for it. It’s amazing to see the team’s progress over the years.”

Having spent months working and training for the competition, co-captain and senior Anika Lieber came away from the week-long event feeling team members accomplished more than merely winning trophies.

“The best part about being at a competition like this is that we become so much closer,” says Lieber. “It makes us stronger as a team.”

Just one week after their Varsity Song team made school history, Santa Margarita’s 22-member Varsity Cheer squad made history of their own in Orlando at the UCA National High School Cheerleading Championship held the first week of February.

Having qualified for this prestigious cheerleading championship last November at a regional competition held in Ontario, the team competed among 37 schools in preliminary and semi-final rounds in the Large Varsity Division, with high scores that allowed them to advance with 10 other squads in the final round.

Making adjustments and refining their routine along the way, Santa Margarita’s Varsity Cheer received zero deductions for their final performance, coming away with a school record high third place overall.

“I knew we had a good routine, but I didn’t know how good until we got there,” says Santa Margarita’s Head Cheer coach, Tiffany Bromm. “I don’t think the girls realized the potential they had in them until they got to Florida. They all pushed their teammates to do their best, and they rose to the challenge.”

Senior and Varsity Cheer co-captain Antia Thorson made a point of savoring her final nationals appearance representing the Eagles.

“Going into it, since it was my last time (competing at nationals), I was happy to be there,” says Thorson. “I was nervous for my newer teammates, but I was so impressed with how everyone did.”

The commitment level for Santa Margarita Song and Cheer team members is time-intensive and year-round. Tryouts are held each spring for junior varsity and varsity squads, and practices begin immediately after the teams are named. They practice three times a week, with team members taking additional dance and tumbling classes outside of school at local gyms and studios.

The teams perform in approximately seven competition events each year, spanning November to March. All of this is in addition to pep rallies and weekly game responsibilities that include leading the home crowds at football and boys basketball games, as well as sports such as volleyball and baseball.

“It’s more than just being on a team and dancing,” says Cestone. “These girls are ambassadors of the school.”

Several team members have at least 10-plus years of experience training and competing, so while the competition aspect of their role at Santa Margarita isn’t new, the girls admit there’s something special about representing their high school, especially for the senior members of the team.

“The Friday nights at the football games, getting to be a part of crowd and leading them is so cool,” says Thorson. “I love all the memories and the friendships I’ve made. That’s what I’ll miss the most.”