BLOOMINGTON — Moments after her Morris competitive dance team performed its routine in the first-ever IHSA finals at Bloomington’s U.S. Cellular Coliseum on Saturday, coach Becky Struck was brimming with confidence.
“I thought the girls did phenomenal. They had so much energy and that’s kind of what we prepared them for,” Struck said. “There are ten teams that are gunning for the 1-2-3 spots. There are seven teams that are walking home today (without a trophy) and they didn’t want to be one of them, so their energy was phenomenal today.”
Unfortunately for Struck and her dancers, the high energy performance was deemed by the IHSA judges to be only seventh best in Class 2A, sending the team home empty handed, but full of lasting memories of competing in a ground-breaking, inaugural state championship event.
Morris entered the two-day event with high hopes. Some might even call the program a veritable dancing dynasty, what with its claim on 31 pom squad state championships. Those championships came under the auspices and sanctioning of other organizations such as the Illinois Drill Team Association (IDTA), however, and Morris entered into uncharted territory in the first year of the IHSA recognizing competitive dancing as a championship sport.
“The categories are much different,” Struck said. “Here at the IHSA you can bring whatever style of dance that you would like. The process is completely different. We were used to competing only against pom teams or only against hip-hop teams. (In the IHSA), you compete against everybody. Other organizations don’t have a preliminary process. It’s just one big day and it’s split up by category of dance.”
In the IHSA’s preliminary process, Morris qualified for the finals through a sectional event earlier in the week. On Friday, the Redskins were joined in Bloomington by 30 other Class 2A qualifiers in competition to whittle the field down to 10.
On Friday, in the spotlight and to the beat of pulsating music reverberating throughout the 7,000-seat arena, the 14-member Morris unit — led by captains Brenna Feeney, Kayla Jackson and Rachel Newhalfen — synchronized its effort in a carefully choreographed performance that netted the Redskins a fourth place finish and a spot in Saturday’s final 10.
With all of the past success Morris has had, some may have been disappointed. Struck viewed the result as an opportunity to latch onto the judges’ report and attempt to get better prior to Saturday’s do-or-die final day showdown.
“We practiced a little bit this morning,” she said. “We ended up changing one of the formations based on the judges’ comments and there were a couple of things they wanted us to clear up and clarify.”
As in Olympic figure skating and gymnastics, the scorekeeping differs from the baseball, basketball and football that most are accustomed to.
“We have judges, there’s no four quarters and it’s a little more subjective to opinion and things like that,” Struck said, adding that sometimes the judges can be less than specific about a team’s strengths or shortcomings.
“Sometimes certain judges will say ‘at 24-seconds (of a 3-minute routine) they had a really good this.’ Sometimes it’s more general,” she said. “Depending on what they comment, you can sometimes tell what it is, if it’s a technique element or if it’s a transitional something.”
With 91 teams competing in three different enrollment-based classes, Friday’s activities didn’t end until nearly 9 p.m.
After a long day at the coliseum, it was time for the team to kick back a bit.
“We kind of ordered pizza and the girls just kind of relaxed to get ready for (Saturday),” Struck said.
Following Saturday morning’s practice, the Redskins reported in at the Coliseum at 2:25 that afternoon for stretching and a final “full-floor” prep at an ice arena adjacent to the Coliseum floor.
They took the floor for their routine at 3 p.m., learned of their finish around 4:15 and quickly headed home.
Crystal Lake Central took the Class 2A title after finishing third in Friday’s preliminary. Lake Forest was second on both days. Highland, which won Friday’s prelim, was deemed third best on Saturday. Vernon Hills, Grayslake North and Troy Triad all got past Morris on Saturday to finish fourth, fifth and sixth respectively.