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By AARON SCHULTZ
For the Daily News
It was a memorable year for the Ketchikan High School cheer team.
“Tears,” senior Brock King reminisced recently about cheer team’s 2018-19 season.
“It was a season of blood, sweat and tears,” agreed senior Azariah Schultz.
It was a long and hard road to the state title for Ketchikan. The hometown heroes of the hardwood battled through adversity, overcoming obstacles and persevering through injuries to claim the Region V crown, narrowly edging out the Juneau-Douglas Crimson Bears at the Region V Tournament in Sitka. A long odds contender at the Anchorage-hosted state tourney, the Kings adapted and overcame the competition earning the honor of state champions.
The Kings’ cheer squad didn’t expect to win this season. Beset by injuries and stung by the loss of key players, there were moments when they weren’t even sure whether they would be able to compete.
“It was crazy,” sophomore Lauren Scarzella laughed. “So many things went wrong.”
The misfortune began when senior captain flyer Jenna Miller injured her arm during practice six weeks before the Region V tournament. With Miller’s future uncertain, Head Coach Jaylyn Merrill and her team chose to adapt.
“Losing a team member has a ripple effect throughout every routine,” Schultz explained. “It’s more of a shuffle of resources than a straight replacement. It’s complicated. The coaches and team work out the details to find the best solution, but the coaches ultimately decide.”
A couple weeks later junior Tacoma Coronel suffered a concussion that took her out of the line-up. Shortly after, junior MaKenzie Merrill injured her knee. Coach Merrill and her team chose to adapt.
Four weeks before the Region V tournament, three of the five male team members were removed from the roster. A major portion of the Kings’ stunting foundation was gone.
“It was really sad,” junior captain flyer Nicole Embree remembered. “We were all crying.”
The team was at a crossroad. Again they chose to adapt. Coach Merrill rallied her troops and laid out the plan. They would hold an emergency tryout to replace the lost boys.
“This is fine,” Merrill’s assistant coach, Lacey Bailey, recalled her saying. “‘I’m a problem solver. We are problem solvers. We’ll figure this out.’” A few days later Jared Valentine, Carter Thomas and Azariah Schultz were added to the roster. The team began to reorganize and rework its routines.
During a practice shortly before the last home games, a stunt went wrong. A spot was missed as Scarzella fell backwards from the shoulders of a teammate.
“It was like watching it in slow motion,” King recalled.
“I was diving toward her,” Embree remembered, “trying to get my body between her and the floor, but I was too far away.”
“She just tipped backward,” Schultz slowly gestured. “Jackson (Kaye) tried to grab her ankles, but she just went to the floor back of the head first.”
“I remember trying to get up. They kept pushing me back down, telling me to stay down,” Scarzella laughed. “I said ‘I’m fine.’ They told me I couldn’t cheer in the games, and I started crying.”
Another varsity flyer was off the roster and regions were a little over a week away.
It was in the coming days that the Kings would demonstrate their determination. Injured players returned to the roster. Gritting their teeth, they wrapped, braced and performed through the pain. After the last home stand, the coaches had a week to integrate the players returning from injury and get their team ready for the regional tournament. They chose to adapt. It appeared their perseverance was paying off. The team traveled to Sitka ready to perform its reworked routine.
Misfortune frowned upon the Kings again. During warm-ups for adjudication while performing an in-hands, hoisting Lauren in the air, junior Jackson Kaye injured his arm.
“We all thought it was broken,” Scarzella recalled. Jackson was done for the season with a severe sprain.
“We thought we’re done,” King laughed.
“It was minutes away (from performing),” Embree shook her head as she remember. “Everyone was crazy. We thought we were going to have to mark everything.”
Marking is the act of going through the motions of a routine without actually performing the stunts. The judges are encouraged to imagine the girls flying through the air as the squad members strike a pose that suggests something amazing should be happening.
The Kings were given a reprieve. Their adjudication was moved from Wednesday to Friday. They had a day to rework the routine without Kaye.
“He’s our strongest and best back spotter,” King explained.
“The timing was the worst, but the team rallied around Jackson’s injury,” Coach Merrill said. “The injury really solidified the new team. After Kaye went to the hospital, one of our new coaches, Jessie Sanders, asked ‘Is this normal?’ I was like NO! One or two things in a season, maybe. This is insane! We just had a problem-solving attitude. Problem solving became normal.”
The Kings performed fabulously during adjudication, but the defending champion Juneau-Douglas Crimson Bears were favorites to repeat. The difference was a fraction of a point in favor of the Kings.
“We were shocked,” Embree remembered. “I was looking at my phone waiting for them to say JD.”
“Winning by a fraction of a point is like a buzzer beater,” King laughed. “No one expected it.”
“The difference was our side lines,” Coach Merrill explained. “Our kids won the crowd.”
“Our pep club was awesome!” Embree exclaimed. “They were so loud for us.”
“Carter (Thomas) was the pep club president before he came to cheer,” King chuckled.
Schultz laughed, “Yeah, he and Jared (Valentine, pep vice president) were our inside guys.”
The Kings’ cheer team returned home victorious with the boys and girls basketball teams, which also had claimed region titles. The basketball teams were going to state, but the cheer team staff had taken state off the table when it lost the three boys. The team dispersed with no intention of traveling to Anchorage.
Then plans changed.
“We decided to go support the boys and girls at the last minute,” Merrill smiled. “We had to cut the team from 18 to 12, with injuries and availability.”
This year ASAA adopted the Game Day format for the state cheer competition. It was the first time this format was used at the state tourney. Once again the Kings would have to adapt. They had the minimum team of 12 members and adjusted their routines to fit the new team size and format. The Kings were the smallest school and smallest team in their division. The squad cheered for the boy’s state championship victory and brought home the second state cheer championship in school history. Once again the margin of victory was a fraction of a point.
“It was awesome!” Merrill laughed. “My favorite year coaching. A great group of kids. Coachable, hard-working, adaptable, fun to watch. We didn’t perform the same routine twice this season. They adapted. They overcame.”
The cheer squad had high praise for its coaches. The squad’s members explained how each coach brought something unique to the season and helped them develop their skills.
Embree intensely describes her coach.
Merrill “does so much,” Embree said. “She always does so much and she cares so much about the team and how hard we work. It’s amazing. I just really appreciate it. She pushes our team to work so hard and she makes us want it.”
“She is our leader,” King explained. “She’s not just our coach; she’s like a captain in the way that she leads.”
Perseverance was the theme of the season. There was some blood, a lot of sweat and many tearful moments. It was perseverance that took the team from tears of pain, sadness and loss to tears of joy, exhilaration and victory.