For a group of young Howell cheerleaders a trip to Florida earlier this month was the culmination of a season's worth of hard work that sometimes included working in freezing cold gyms in the wake of a powerful storm. For a local football team, their trip was the culmination of years of near misses before finally reaching their goal.
By the time the trips were done Howell had two national champions and a national runner-up after a very busy fall season.
Tom Bonham, the coach of the Howell Division II Pee Wee squad said their goal was to make it to Florida from the start of their American Youth Football season. "We used it as motivation in practice that we had to get better each day to achieve it and the team kept responding," he said.
This is a team that has been together for several years and in that time has continuously come within a few games of the national finals. This year they finally got there. "We were close but we just didn't get it," he said. "Especially when we were in Florida you just weren't taking it away from them."
Jane Mazik, who serves as the Vice President of Cheerleading for the Howell Pop Warner and coaches the Junior Pee Wee team said her national title winning squad and the second place junior midgets also had big years as they worked their way through the competition.
The Junior Pee Wee's won all four of the major competitions this year with Florida being the icing on the cake while the midget finished in the top two all year to make it to the final showcase. "I can't be totally biased, but I'm proud of both teams," she said with a laugh.
Mazik said the fact that the girls got as far as they did is a tribute to their dedication to the sport. "The road to Florida is never an easy one," she said. "It's always tough on the coaches and the girls."
This year's route was made even tougher by Hurricane Sandy as many of the team's regular practice spots were closed due to the storm. "We were in gyms that had no power. Everybody had no power," she said. The power outages meant colder than usual practices as the girls learned their cheers and rehearsed their stunts for the competitions in dark and chilly gyms.
For Coach Bonham the team's trip through some tough Jersey Shore competition made getting to Florida more manageable as they were used to facing talented teams. "You know if you can handle the teams here you're pretty prepared to go to Florida," he said.
Once they got to Florida the level of competition was tough but nothing the boys could not handle. "Everybody has one or two athletes that can take it to the house at any time," he said. "It was very physical football."
The Howell squad represented New Jersey well as they beat teams from Texas and Virginia before beating a team from Alabama to claim the title.
When his team raised the championship trophy Bonham said all the hard work was worth it. "I wanted to see the kids smile," he said. "I wanted them to know that they achieved it and seeing them achieve it and how they achieved it means the world to me."
There may not have been the hard hitting that was seen on the football team on the field but Mazik said her squads took their fair share of knocks all the through the final show. "We only had two competitive teams and they both went to nationals," she said. "For years it was always the same team consistently going and the other team could never overcome getting there. This year was just so huge for us."
Going into the finals the coach said most people believed the title would come down to the Howell team of their in-state rivals from South Plainfield. A team from North Carolina proved to be a surprising dark horse in the race and almost knocked the two Jersey teams off the top spot. "We were blown out of the water," she said.
When South Plainfield was called as the third place finisher Mazik said time seemed to stop for a long time. "Three of my girls turned around and looked at me nervously," she said. "I wanted to be excited. I said this is it." After what she described as feeling like 10 minutes the final announcement was made and Howell had won the title. "We erupted in craziness," she said.
Both coaches agreed that whether it was on the gridiron or on the mats the lessons their teams learned went beyond the sports they were competing in. "You can say to them and I do say to them that this is why we work," Mazik said. "It's about life lessons and putting your all into everything all the time, 100 percent of the time."
The coaches also agreed that doing so well this year only made them hungry for more next year. "We're going to come back with a vengeance again," Mazik said, though she admitted doing so well this time will make next year, "hard to follow up."
No matter the results next year, for the 2012 season two teams from Howell left their mark at the top of their game.
To see highlights of the football tournament check out NBC Sports Network (Cablevision Channel 146) at 3:30 on Saturday afternoon.