With no money, no uniforms and little support, two Beloit Memorial High alumnae began the 2008-09 year with the hope of forming a pom pons squad that would restore the spirit they once felt at the school.
After a season of performing at boys basketball games, the Knightingales traveled to Waukegan, Ill., about a week ago for their first competition. They walked away with two trophies and a chance to compete for a national title.
“For the first year to accomplish that,” coach Michelle Hendrix-Nora said, “we're proud of them.”
Hendrix-Nora, a second-year special education teacher at BMHS, and her sister Regina Hendrix, a substitute teacher working toward a master's degree, decided about a year ago to form the squad because the school had a similar program when they were students in the mid 1990s.
“It seemed like the spirit was lost, and we wanted to help bring it back,” Hendrix-Nora said.
The sisters agreed to work together because they feed off each other's talents and abilities.
“We said we wouldn't take on this task without each other,” Hendrix-Nora said.
They wanted to create something more than athletes, though.
They wanted to mold the girls into good citizens since they will need talents other than dancing once they leave high school.
So, throughout the year, the squad participated in community service projects, such as a Toys for Tots drive and painting knight heads on the school's sidewalks for homecoming.
Because the group had no funding, the girls raised money through bake sales and donations, but some of the costs - about $300 per girl - came from their own pockets. Those on the squad's related step team had to pay extra.
Practices were held for about two hours after school Mondays through Fridays in addition to some weekends.
Of the dozens of girls initially interested in the squad, nine remain.
“It's been fun, complicating and tiring,” 16-year-old freshman Amirra Hughes said, noting the dedication has been worth it. “It's not something I didn't want to do.”
While dealing with each other's attitudes gets hectic at times, junior Domonique Gullens, 16, said she stayed with the squad because the girls always work through tough patches.
“And I love to dance, and I'm not going to let anyone take that away from me,” she said.
With uniforms purchased at Wal-Mart, the squad cheered during boys basketball games and performed during half time.
But, Athletic Director Mark Smullen said, it wasn't until a pep assembly for African American History Month that the squad first became distinguished as a group here to stay.
“They just blew the roof off the place,” he said.
The Knightingales entered the Applause Talent Competition this month as rookies and faced off against girls from dance academies.
“They were kind of shocked to see a high school there,” Hendrix-Nora said.
Furthermore, she said, about 99 percent of the other teams were Caucasian - a stark contrast to Beloit's black squad.
“That in itself was different,” she said.
The squad received High Gold - the second best recognition - in two categories: small group and hip hop/other.
Because of funding and the girls' summer plans, the coaches are unsure whether the group will compete at the national competition, also in Waukegan, in June.