Just before school let out for the holiday break, a group of first- and second-graders from Sherrills Ford headed for Florida. Their destination: the American Youth Football and Cheer national competition in Orlando.
Not long before the trip, the Mighty Mites finished a season cheering for the Sherrills Ford Optimist Trojans football team. The group had started with 22 girls, many of whom had never cheered before. They endured summertime practices with temperatures above 90 degrees and week after week of games.
But that was nothing compared to preparing for nationals.
"None of us have done it before," said Paula Baker, who, an assistant coach along with Dina Haugstatter. "We're the first cheer squad out of Sherrills Ford to go to nationals, ever."
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Head coach Betsy Tessler chalked up the Mighty Mites' success to four things: desire, dedication, teamwork and support from parents, particularly the team mom, Carol Rasar.
"She has helped at practices, games and, most important, has organized all our paperwork," Tessler said.
By the end of football season, the Mighty Mites had 10 girls - the "Marvelous 10" - who would go to Florida.
First they had to qualify. They competed in Mooresville and Lincoln County and at the regional qualifiers in Greensboro. There they met older cheerleaders, some in college, who inspired them.
Besides practicing for 21/2 hours three days a week, the girls had to raise money for their trip. Saturday mornings meant yard sales; evenings meant "spirit nights" at local restaurants. Local businesses provided sponsorship.
At the last practice, two days before leaving for the competition, the girls perfected their routine, focusing on tight movements and strong voices.
It was hard to imagine these tiny, spirited girls sitting quietly in a first-grade classroom. As the music began for the dance component, the Mighty Mites lined up, then broke out in all directions. Some mouthed "5, 6, 7, 8" as they performed. Others smiled nervously and kept their eyes on the coaches.
By the end of practice, the coaches thought they still needed some work. But Tessler was confident the girls' dedication and teamwork would pay off.
"They know their responsibility to the team," Tessler said. "These girls of ages 6 to 7 ... are cheerleaders by heart."
They left on a Wednesday, spending the night in Jacksonville, Fla. On Thursday they arrived in Orlando, where they and the other competitors had a day of fun at Universal Studios' Islands of Adventure park.
Friday was reserved for practice and a spirit party for all the cheerleaders. The Mighty Mites also went to the Orlando Science Center, an educational opportunity that allowed the girls to miss school without penalty.
On Saturday, the girls, in their green, gold and white, proudly performed their routine. At their first national competition, the Mighty Mites won third place. Second-grader Madison Tessler won the division's "Jump Off" competition. The girls returned to Sherrills Ford on Sunday, ready for school and, possibly, for the next cheerleading season to begin.
The Sherrills Ford Optimist Trojan Mighty Mites cheerleaders are Haynes Baker, Katie Brittain, Chayse Dunkel, Anah Ellis, Elizabeth Fallon, Shaelyn Griffin, Brooke Haugstatter, Abby Painter, Savannah Rasar and Madison Tessler.