Northstars Compete

An in-depth look at the Cicero-North Syracuse High School Northstars varsity winter guard.

The song “Why” by Annie Lennox played in the Dayton University Arena as the Cicero-North Syracuse (CNS) High School Northstars varsity winter guard tossed flags in the air, spun rifles and twirled sabers. The flags’ turquoise silks popped against the black backdrop hanging from the ceiling. On the other side of the arena, 18,000 people sat watching the 2009 WGI World Championships finals performance.

After the spins and tosses, the guard members placed the equipment on the floor and began dancing on the question mark painted on their themed floor tarp. They had practiced the upcoming part more than 200 times throughout the season and were now relying on muscle memory. In follow-the-leader fashion, the team danced its way to the question mark’s dot, stood in a clump and moved together to the music. Already, audience members started rising to their feet in a standing ovation. The team, wearing black dresses, then jumped and thudded to the ground on their knees to end the show. The crowd erupted in cheers.

The team grabbed the equipment, which was scattered on the floor, and walked offstage while crying with happiness. The parent crew, which had been waiting on the side, folded the floor tarp and rolled it away on a cart.

After its performance, the varsity CNS team, along with the other finalists, marched onto the arena’s floor to hear the judges’ verdict. Each group stood in line, facing the judges table. Before coming to Dayton, Ohio, the CNS guard, competing against 101 groups in its division, hoped to place in the top 15. For five months, the members had rehearsed 10 hours a week, all to perfect this five-minute performance for judges, fans, and family. They would soon hear if their work paid off.

The director and coaches of CNS stood in the audience holding hands, waiting for the judges to announce the scores. The guard stood on the floor waiting. A judge’s voice boomed over the intercom. The CNS Northstars Winterguard, he announced, won the Scholastic A gold medal. The guard members jumped with excitement and stepped forward, so the judges could drape gold medals around their necks.

When the guard returned to North Syracuse, N.Y., the team members wore their medals to school and received congratulations from classmates. But as practices began for 2010, they almost felt haunted by their achievement.

Movin’ On Up

The group wanted to deliver another successful performance at the 2010 WGI World Championships on April 8 but knew that the competition would be more challenging. As a result of last year’s championship title, WGI placed the varsity CNS team in a higher division. The group would no longer compete in the entry-level Scholastic A Class but against teams in one division higher, the Scholastic Open Class. Open Class teams must perform more technical tricks. “The staff feels pressure,” says Director Larry Schmidt. “The kids, I know, they feel some pressure. It’s a little bit harder this year.”

The Northstar’s director loves the creativity involved in show planning. “I’m a nut about it; I am thinking about it while I’m at work, when I’m lying in bed at night, while I’m eating, just trying to sort through things and just make sure we have every situation covered and every problem resolved,” Schmidt says.

In the 2010 season, the group performed to a gospel song, “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” “It’s about people we love who may not be able to be here anymore, but they’re still looking down on us in some way,” Schmidt says.

The guard members and instructors each dedicated the show to someone, and they wrote that name on the bottom of the show’s floor mat. The mat has a blue “V” painted on it to represent a flying sparrow.

Billy Parent, Schmidt’s friend in Atlanta, Ga., designed the 2009 and 2010 show concepts, but Schmidt oversees its day-to-day execution.

On a Thursday night, 23 girls sit on the tarp in Cicero-North Syracuse Junior High School’s gym. The one boy on the team is out sick, but the rest of the team starts the three-hour night practice. The girls are dressed in black clothing and their hair is fastened in ballerina buns. For 20 minutes they follow a stretching routine to songs like “Whatcha Say” by Jason DeRulo.

“OK, stop it, that’s disgusting,” one girl says after seeing her teammate folded in a back bend. Every week, the team members works on flexibility, and their splits are measured with rulers to check progress. After stretching, they stand in the left-hand corner of the gym facing their coaches and director.

“We’re 23 days from the Championships,” Schmidt says. “For some of you, this will be your last performance. What I want you to do is work hard so you can say, ‘I did everything I could to make this a wonderful season.’”

Stephanie Galutz, one of the four coaches, then starts clapping her hands as the girls tiptoe two-by-two across the floor to warm up. Next, the team practices individually. Some members toss rifles into the air and catch them while squatting. Others slide into the splits after catching sabers. And some slice the air with flags.

An hour into practice, the group runs parts of the show. Focusing on the end of the routine, the team members travel along the floormat’s “V” while leaping and twirling, and then bend to their knees in a domino effect. They rehearse that segment at least 10 times without complaint.

Something in the Water

The members push themselves to succeed, in part because they come from a community that breeds championship teams. The Northstars, the oldest continuous guard in New York, has taken six gold medals and 20 other medals at the Mid-York and/or Northeast Championships since 1956. But 2009 marked the first world championship title. “People tell us that there’s something in the water that makes people gravitate towards winter guard in our school, and I almost think there is some truth to that,” Schmidt says.

Lori Rattray, whose daughter is on the team, used to be a CNS guard member. But she remembers wearing gaucho pants and marching instead of wearing leotards and jazz-running. After graduating, Rattray wanted to keep guard in her life.

She taught winter guard at another high school for several years, but then stopped when she gave birth. Although she no longer coached, she kept her equipment. When her daughter Corey was in elementary school, she walked out of Rattray’s closet carrying a saber. And while on a family vacation, 9-year-old Corey saw color guards marching down the streets of Walt Disney World spinning flags. She told her mom, “I want to learn that.” Rattray bought her a flag and in fifth grade Corey joined the school’s winter guard.

Although Rattray no longer competes, she is still part of the team. Taylor Laris, a senior guard member, remembers Rattray teaching her tricks she’d never seen. One night after practice, Rattray stood, spinning a rifle in double-time. A group gathered to learn. Rattray stays involved with winterguard indirectly, exchanging new tricks for old and organizing the trips.

Not everyone’s parents can spin, but in North Syracuse, as many as 98 people begin winter guard in fifth or sixth grade. At the high school level, students join either the junior varsity or varsity team. The coaches select the best for varsity through auditions.

To perform at that caliber, students make sacrifices. In ninth grade, Laris used to cheerlead, play lacrosse, teach dance classes and do guard. She remembers getting home from school, going to lacrosse practice 3 to 5, teaching dance classes 5 to 6, and attending guard practice 6:30 to 9:30. When she got more involved with guard and had to practice more, something had to go.

At lacrosse practice, her friends would give her a hard time when she’d spin her lacrosse stick. “I’m sorry, I just can’t stop,” she’d say.

When lacrosse tryouts for sophomore year were scheduled for the same time as winter guard practice, she attended guard practice. “I could go into practice with a bad mood, and they would know how to comfort me; they were like family,” she says. Laris dropped lacrosse and cheerleading.

Like other sports, winter guard teaches teamwork and responsibility. “You rely on the people next to you to rehearse and hone their skills, and you rely on coaches,” Powers says. If everyone does what they’re supposed to, the team almost becomes a machine, he says.

It disappoints Morgan Kenyon, a guard member, that some people don’t recognize their hard work. “It annoys the heck out of me that I can’t get a sport’s scholarship,” she says at practice. Sweat on her brow and shortness of breath reveal the effort she exerts while performing.

Her dad, Dave Kenyon, president of the parent fundraising group, says that Morgan loves the sport. “Winter guard is in her blood. She does dance moves in the house while walking to dinner,” he says. “They aren’t looking at the clock. They want to be [at practice].”

Although the students work hard practicing, competition days are equally tiring. “There’s no other sport out there where you push the team the hardest on the day you compete,” Schmidt says.

Eyes on the Sparrow

On April 7, the team boarded charter buses and left for the WGI World Championships, the last event of the season where it face 39 teams. The group arrived in Dayton at 2:30 a.m. and woke up at 6 a.m. for practice. It was scheduled to perform first during the Preliminary Round. “It was pretty nerve-racking because we knew that it wasn’t the best spot for us to be in,” Laris says.

The group warmed up at Centerville High School, the prelims’ location. But before competing, the team formed a circle and reminded each other to perform for one another; it didn’t matter what others thought.

The Northstars froze in its opening pose. The girls wore shimmery white dresses, and the boy wore pants and a shirt of similar material. Once the music started, the performers twirled sabers and tossed rifles while creating formations on the floor. Salmon-colored flags swirled around their bodies. Tears formed in some of the seniors’ eyes; they knew this could be their last performance. Each performer then struck a pose before the domino-like ending, which brought them to their knees.

After the show, the team joined the audience to watch their competitors and wait for the results. Unlike in finals, prelims don’t have an awards ceremony. Instead, the judges compare the teams as they perform and post the rankings on a paper outside the gym. Periodically, parents would check the scores and text them to their children.

CNS didn’t qualify for semifinals. They had placed 12th in their round and 33rd overall. “It’s really hard moving up a class, but we did pretty well; we actually beat the team that got second to us last year,” Laris says.

While disappointed, they tried to think positively at the hotel. “Competition means that there are successes in failure,” Powers says. “Because you lost the competition doesn’t mean that you didn’t get better from the previous year. It doesn’t mean your kids weren’t better or your program wasn’t better. It just means that on that day another group was better than you. A color guard can get better year-to-year, so the CNS program could actually be better this year than last year.”

Even if the Northstars improved, they never lost sight of why they compete. “I didn’t care so much about the whole winning thing; I just do it more for the love of guard,” Laris says.

And winter guard members learn more than how to spin equipment. They learn dedication, tolerance and respect, Powers says.

On the final day of the competition, the Northstars entered the Dayton University Arena, this time as spectators. The team members watched the finalists perform and receive medals. Although they weren’t leaving with the championship title this year, they were still satisfied.

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