- Associated Press - Friday, July 17, 2015

AUBURN, Ala. (AP) - “One two, three four, five six, seven eight . One two, three four.”

The choreographer’s mantra resounded through the otherwise empty concourse at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum Thursday morning as batons hurtled through the air, falling carefully back into the hands they left when they started their flights.

“It’s not as easy as it looks,” said 20-year-old Savannah Morgan.

“You have to be committed to do it,” added 13-year-old Erin Smith.

The “it” that Morgan and Smith referred to is competitive baton twirling - a sport that many are not familiar with beyond watching majorettes perform during halftime at the 50-yard-line.

“I think more people should be exposed to it,” Smith said. “It makes me feel good. I don’t know what I’d do without twirling.”

Preparing for what could be their biggest exposure yet, two competitive twirling teams and one dance line, made up of 12 girls from Auburn’s Rising Starz Studios, will be competing next week at America’s Youth on Parade, the National Baton Twirling Association’s national championship at University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.

In addition, four twirlers — Morgan, Smith, Alannah Harte and Maddox Mullen — qualified to compete individually at nationals by winning their divisions at the regional Miss Majorette of the South competition in Wetumpka last May, which followed their success at Miss Majorette of Alabama. They will also be competing for Miss Majorette of America in their ability and age groups.

America’s Youth on Parade will mark all of the twirlers’ first time ever participating in a national competition.

“For a year we’ve been planning,” said Holly Mullen, coach of the Rising Starz twirling teams. “This was our ultimate goal this summer.”

Mullen explained that the two twirling teams are divided into a preteen team and a junior team, the former ranging in age from about 10 to 14 and the latter made up of girls aged 14 and older. Each team has eight members, with some girls competing on both teams.

Throughout the year, the teams have competed in various competitions around the South, ultimately gearing them up for the national competition in Indiana. All summer, the girls have been practicing to perfect their twirling routines, both as a group and on their own time.

“All of these girls work independently,” said Andrea Gavin Smith, also a twirling coach at Rising Starz. “Most of them practice multiple days a week, if not every day.”

Mullen added that the individual competitors practice with their coaches at least four to five days a week.

“They’ve attended camps and had different instructors around the country evaluate their solos and things of that nature just to get different opinions,” Mullen said. “So it’s been a busy summer.”

Mullen, who was a competitive twirler before becoming a coach, noted how the sport has grown in popularity locally since competitive twirling teams were established at Rising Starz over the past few years.

“I think a lot of people twirl in this area, but they’re aimed toward just their high school line or maybe a college line,” Mullen said. “But we kind of brought in the competition atmosphere of it. It takes it a step above.”

Mullen said most of the girls started twirling at a young age, which will be a benefit for those who want to continue the sport through their secondary and post-secondary education years.

“It’s not just strictly twirling - we do a lot of dance, a lot of movement, and plus you’re performing in front of people constantly,” she explained. “It kind of prepares you for an audition-type thing or a football game-type thing that by the time you get to the high school level, you should be used to performing and being in front of people and the expectation.”

The teams will leave on Sunday to drive to Indiana, and competition begins Tuesday. The coaches said they are anticipating their girls experiencing a broader scope of twirling.

“I think the biggest thing for me is that the girls get to see twirling on a large scale, and I hope that it inspires them to continue pushing themselves,” Andrea Gavin Smith said. “The number of competitors is going to be overwhelming for them. A lot of the competitions we go to, they may be used to six, seven, eight girls against them. And now we’re talking about 40.”

Morgan, who has been twirling under Mullen’s instruction for about 10 years, echoed Andrea Gavin Smith in expressing that she is looking forward to seeing twirlers from across the nation who share her love of the sport. Morgan described experiencing nervous excitement going into the national competition.

“I was excited, and I think the closer it’s gotten, I’ve gotten more nervous,” Morgan said.

But whether or not their teams become national champions, the Rising Starz twirling coaches hope that their participation at this level will help highlight the sport locally beyond the Friday night lights.

“I think it brings some focus back to twirling and the fact that it is a sport, and it’s something that they train hard at,” Andrea Gavin Smith said.

“I’m extremely proud of them,” Mullen said. “I think this is a great opportunity for all of them, and it’s a very eye-opening experience to see the level of twirling across the country. It’s not very publicized, a

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