HIGH (KICK) HOPES
Crammed into a small room Thursday at the STEM center in West Fargo, parents and their Packatahnas gathered for a state tournament sendoff.
The West Fargo dance team's season was winding down. After state, they'd be going on a longer trip that would take them all the way to Florida and another shot at a national title.
Another shot at glory.
Captains Ashley Gerdes, Alexis Cowley and Ashley Vangerud know this all too well. With a combined 13 years of experience on the Packatahnas between them, the West Fargo seniors are hoping to go out with a bang.
The combination of emotions is tough to comprehend.
"It's...I don't know how to explain it," Gerdes said.
"We're excited, a little nervous. It's just kind of indescribable," Vangerud said.
In 2007, the Packatahnas went to the UDA National competition and placed first in both high kick and pom. They also took second in jazz and were runner-up in Grand Champion with their high kick routine.
They've been trying to reach the peak of that mountain ever since. Last year, West Fargo took third in high kick, and the year before they were runner-up.
If the Packatahnas have a chance at a national title, this year may just be their best bet. The team boasts 12 seniors, making it arguably one of the most experienced West Fargo squads in years.
"They have experience dealing with pressure that nationals can bring," said Packatahnas coach Jordan Jost, who is in her fourth year leading the squad. "They know what it feels like to fight for the top spot, and push the younger kids to fight every day."
Plus, they're a very tight-knit group.
"This is the closest team I have seen in a long time," Jost said. "They take care of each other and push each other to be better every day."
The captains agree.
"There are no cliques," Cowley said. "It's sort of cliché, but we all get along really well. This is our last chance to do it as a team."
Evidence of their teamwork has presented itself all season. The Packatahnas placed first in all local competitions, and were second overall at the UDA regional competition in Minneapolis. The weekend before state, West Fargo took first at the Valentine Classic in South Dakota and were named Grand Champions with the overall high score of the day.
That success continued at state, where the Packatahnas held on to their reign as champions with first-place finishes in kick and pom, and a runner-up finish in jazz.
The junior varsity team also saw success, placing first in both kick and jazz, and second in pom.
The Packatahnas leave for the UDA National Competition on Thursday, and will be performing prelims in kick and jazz Saturday at the Indiana Jones Theatre. Finals are Sunday. The UDA National High School finals will be streaming live online at www.varsity.com, beginning with high kick.
People interested in watching can purchases a one-day package for $7.99.
Viewers should take the routines they watch with a grain of salt: they may look simple from the outside, however they are anything but.
"We make it look easy," Vangerud said.
The work involved to display that kind of grace and skill is every bit as time-demanding and strenuous as other high school sports. The Packatahnas meet for practice every day for three hours, working on cardio, stretching and perfecting their routines.
Even now at the end of the season, that latter point cannot be emphasized enough. There is always room for improvement.
"We have to perfect every little thing we can," Cowley said.
The good thing about having state out of the way is that the Packatahnas only have to work on the routines they will perform at nationals. It's a different level of play there, the captains admit, and they hope all that hard work and dedication will pay off in the end.
"You have to be disciplined and know what you are capable of," Gerdes said.
"We have the physical work down, but on the day of the competition, it's all about your mental preparation," Cowley added.
Jost said her team's best shot at a title will come if the girls trust each other and work cohesively.
But even if they fail to come back home with a national crown, there is one thing that will mean this season ended as a success.
"No regrets," Jost said.