PENN LAIRD — There’s something special about the Stuart C. Siegel Center.
The 7,637-seat arena belonging to Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond has the bright lights, the big crowd and everything that athletes hope to perform in front of.
“Last year, when we performed at states, I was so nervous,” Spotswood senior Avery Zimmerman said. “I was like, ‘I don’t remember anything. I don’t know what to do.’ Once I hit that mat, I was like, ‘OK. I can do this.’”
One year after making their first-ever appearance at the Virginia High School League Class 3 state championships, the Trailblazers competition cheer team said it's more prepared this year and determined to cap off an incredible season with a strong routine.
For five Spotswood seniors — Zimmerman, Katie Mozingo, Andrea Cardoso, Emily McCoy and Megan Stettler — it’ll be the last performance of their high school careers.
And while Zimmerman and Mozingo both admitted that it’ll be emotional, it’s also a moment that brings pride as the group looks back on the program’s recent turnaround.
“It’s amazing,” Mozingo said. “Just coming from freshman year and seeing how the cheer program has improved is crazy. I literally have no words to explain it. It was just so different freshman year. To be here and this being our last performance, it’s insane.”
Spotswood coach Bridget Smith, who is in her first year as the head coach after serving as an assistant last year and previously helping at Harrisonburg, credited the five seniors for helping to motivate the younger athletes in the program throughout the year.
The Trailblazers were able to field their first JV team this season and with so many underclassmen now participating, Smith said the seniors’ influence was a big key.
“I think they’ve really motivated the younger kids,” Smith said. “We have 14 or 15 freshmen in our program and that’s a huge group to come in. I think a lot of that had to do with how successful we were last year. The kids coming up want to be part of it.”
Before last season, Spotswood had never won a Valley District or regional title.
In fact, the seniors said the Trailblazers were used to finishing “fourth or fifth” each night.
“I never really thought that would happen,” Zimmerman said. “We weren’t the best and struggled a little bit, to be honest, but once our junior year was here, we just all of a sudden kept improving each time. It was like, ‘Wow. We’re actually pretty good.’”
Mozingo said she had to give a lot of credit to Smith for helping turn things around.
“She came into the coaching position and completely turned our program around,” Mozingo said. “It’s crazy how much it improved because of her and the other coaches.”
In last week’s Region 3C cheer championships at Rustburg, Smith said she told the Trailblazers that their first-round performance was easily their best of the season.
An hour later, Smith said their second-round performance was surprisingly even better.
“I feel like it was one of our best performances,” Zimmerman said. “We were really nervous before, so I was worried something might go wrong. Everything went exactly how we all wanted it to go. It was really great to see all of our hard work pay off.”
The athletes said they’ve seen a different attitude from their teammates this year.
After feeling like they didn’t perform up to their standards a year ago at the state meet, the athletes said they’re determined to make up for it this year with a strong routine.
“We want to end it on a good note and know that we did our best for the last competition,” Zimmerman said. “This one really means a lot to all of us.”
That type of commitment to the sport is what has turned the program around, they said.
And it’s why Smith said the seniors deserve credit for changing the way the Spotswood competition cheer team is looked at, not only now, but for the years to come.
“It definitely sets the standard,” Smith said. “They’re not going to be satisfied with anything else from here on out. It also sets a higher standard for the skill level needed to make the team. Even the girls that are on the team now are still worried about increasing their skills to get ready for next year because every year that we are successful, the bar is going to be raised.”
The five Spotswood seniors certainly have raised the bar for the program and that’s something both Zimmerman and Mozingo said they are proud of as they leave.
But before they depart, they’re excited for one last performance in a special place.
And this time, that nervous feeling won’t bother them quite as much.
“It’s what they all dream of,” Smith said. “They dream of being there every year Last year, they were really shocked to reach that dream. This year, that dream was a reality.”