On Friday afternoon, the St. Joseph-Ogden dance team thought its season was finished.
Not because of how they performed. But because of bad weather.
By Saturday night, those feelings had completely changed. Because the Spartans had advanced to state.
SJO traveled to Mascoutah on Saturday to compete in an Illinois High School Association sectional meet more than three hours south of St. Joseph. It was a trip that didn’t seem likely to happen the day before.
With the potential for inclement weather predicted throughout much of the state this past weekend, the IHSA refused to cancel the sectional or postpone the competition to a future date, leaving the decision up to the respective schools about whether they would go and compete or not.
Initially, SJO decided against traveling 185 miles south to Mascoutah, a town located 28 miles southeast of St. Louis.
“We realize parents are driving the girls down to Mascoutah, but this is still a school event and the school district’s responsibility,” SJO Superintendent Brian Brooks said on Friday afternoon in announcing the decision to not make the trip. “Student and staff safety must always come first when making decisions for school events. It is impossible to have zero risk in any aspect of life, but it is our responsibility to lower the risk as much as possible for our students and staff with the information we have in situations involving the school district.”
Brooks didn’t agree with the IHSA’s decision to not postpone the competition until Monday. Martin Luther King Jr. Day is on Monday, and schools have the day off from classes because of the national holiday.
“As I told the IHSA Executive Director over the phone, the decision to have these events under a winter storm warning is unacceptable and irresponsible in my opinion,” Brooks said. “We should never put athletics or activities ahead of student safety. The bottom line comes down to this. No one at the IHSA had a plan B ironed out and in place in case this situation came up, which I told the IHSA is not only hard to fathom when this particular event is in the middle of the winter, but also unacceptable.”
SJO athletic director Justin Franzen informed SJO dance coach Emily Williams on Friday afternoon that the team would not be traveling to Mascoutah.
Williams and the members of the team then held a meeting with the SJO administration and parents to explain the decision about missing the sectional competition.
“To say that our girls are devastated is putting it lightly,” Williams said on Friday evening. “They understand that they cannot do anything about the weather and that our administration did everything they possibly could to make this work for everyone. The girls are sad because they aren’t getting a fair chance to attend their IHSA sectional and possibly advance to state.”
Jolene Duckett, the mother to SJO dance team member Kylie Duckett, said emotions were high on Friday afternoon.
“The hardest part for me was seeing the entire team cry during the meeting after school,” she said. “My daughter is sad for herself, but she is more sad for the five seniors who won’t get this chance again. They are a team and stick together, so they have comforted each other and spent Friday evening together as a team like they would have in Mascoutah. Dance as a sport has a hard time getting respect, and no one really knows how hard these girls work. They always look to making it to IHSA state as a way of getting that respect.”
By Saturday morning, though, those feelings of despair and frustration changed to one of hope and elation for those surrounding the SJO dance team.
Because they were on their way to Mascoutah.
With less snow accumulation than was originally predicted to fall from Friday night into Saturday morning, along with reports of mostly rain on the way to Mascoutah, the SJO administration reversed its initial decision.
“We told them we would re-evaluate, and we did,” Brooks said on Saturday morning. “The IHSA agreed to push back their performance time, so we made the decision to go.”
SJO senior dance team member Kalli Ingram, like most of her teammates, went through a whirlwind of emotions from Friday afternoon into Saturday morning.
“After being told no, only to wake up to a phone call (saying we were going), it was reassuring to know that we weren’t upset over nothing,” Ingram said. “The trip down wasn’t bad actually. The only snow we encountered was around Champaign.”
SJO senior dance team member Haley Griebat said it didn’t feel real hearing the news on Friday. Much like how it didn’t seem likely that she and other team members were getting their hair and makeup ready in the car on the drive down to Mascoutah.
“Our team pulled together quick when we received the message that we were going to be able to go,” she said. “Performing at sectionals is what we look forward to all year long. Our goal as a team is to make it to IHSA state, so getting the opportunity to make that happen was everything we wanted.”
The SJO dance team traveling party arrived safely in Mascoutah ahead of their early afternoon performance time. And when it was time for the Spartans to compete, they did. With a flourish.
SJO compiled a score of 85.13, good enough for fifth place at the 13-school sectional meet and good enough to earn a spot in the state competition since the top six schools advanced to state.
“After all of our hard work and stress this week,” SJO senior dance team member Rachel Gherna said, “it was an amazing feeling to have qualified.”
Villa Grove won the sectional meet with a score of 88.67, while Bethalto Civic Memorial (87.60), Unity (86.57), Effingham St. Anthony (85.67) and Clinton (85.10) all joined SJO in qualifying for state out of the Mascoutah Sectional.
And once SJO concluded its stay in Mascoutah with a state-qualifying performance, the entire traveling party arrived back to St. Joseph safely by Saturday night.
The Spartans won’t have to wait long to perform again. The state meet is on Friday and Saturday at Grossinger Motors Arena in Bloomington. Even if the weather is less than ideal this weekend — no snow is in the forecast at the moment for Friday and Saturday — the events and circumstances surrounding this past weekend is one those associated with the SJO dance team won’t soon forget. For a multitude of reasons.
“Everything happened so fast, but when we all got out there on the floor to dance, I finally realized what was happening,” Gherna said. “All of those emotions hit me at once. To be honest, I almost started crying before the music was turned on. I’m so proud of my team because we have worked so hard and been through so much. I feel like we definitely deserved to dance and qualify.”
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