By LARRY VAUGHT
They’ve performed at various college venues, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York and a Presidential inauguration in Washington, D.C. However, there’s no place quite like Rupp Arena for the Firecrackers, a performance jump rope team of fourth through eighth graders from Kings Local School district in Ohio.
“Rupp Arena is their favorite hands-down. Probably 99 percent of the girls would say Rupp is their favorite by far,” said coach Lynn Kelly. “If you are at Rupp Arena all the time, the vastness is lost on you.
“I remember my first time when we were invited. They took me out to the floor before the game and I thought, ‘Oh dear God. No way we can do this. I don’t know how this happened and we got here.’ Just the sea of blue and enormous roar of the crowd is overwhelming. Our first trip the crowd roared and scared a couple of the girls so bad that they cried on the floor.”
The Firecrackers will be back in Rupp Arena Feb. 17th when Kentucky hosts Alabama. Kelly sounds a bit John Calipari-like when talking about the team she’ll be bringing.
“We are very, very young this year. We lost seven eighth-graders off last year’s team. We had to replace them at the lower end with third and fourth graders,” Kelly said. “They are really cute. They are so young and precious. The problem is I get one going, and five more fall. You never know what they will do, but they are as cut as they can be. It will be very interesting to see how so many new ones do at Rupp Arena.”
The Firecrackers have performed at an Indiana Pacers game already this season and as well as Indiana — “Indiana just dearly loves them like UK does,” Kelly said — and Michigan.
“But the thing about Rupp is that it is loud and sounds like a train when the fans get to roaring. I tell the girls if they do well, they’ll get that reaction,” Kelly said. “Performing at Kentucky is just different. I don’t know what it is. They are such nice folks and you can feel the love.”
Lexington is the only venue where the girls are given time before their appearance to buy souvenirs and mingle with fans. Kentucky fans always stop and compliment the girls and let them know how much they enjoy the halftime show.
“Kentucky fans have just embraced them from day one,” Kelly said.
The love apparently makes an impression because Kelly says several former Firecrackers are in school at UK now and others have been. The former Firecrackers attending UK normally find a way to see the current Firecrackers before the UK show.
“They talk to the girls about what to expect and what works best. They tell them not to look a the Jumbotron and not to let the big crowd bother them,” Kelly said. “They tell them, ‘You and your rope are best friends. Stay focused on that.’”
If you have not seen the Firecrackers, it’s your loss. They are non-stop action — Kelly calls it “fast and furious” —and this year the show has been “elevated” a bit to make it even more entertaining. The Firecrackers are athletic, too. Kelly says she has had girls that received college athletic scholarships, including swimmers and track athletes at UK as well as a basketball player at Davidson.
“A lot of them play volleyball, softball, tennis and lacrosse. Some are cheerleaders,” Kelly said. “They stay so busy with practice with us that they need another sport to fill that void when they finish. They are used to being busy.”
So how hard is it for a young girl to master the routine that fans love so much?
“There is a lot going on,” Kelly said. “They have to be able to stay in the line. They have to look right and left and be able to do the routine with music on specific counts. They have to remember to sparkle but that comes naturally when they are doing something they love. They have a very little amount of skill when they try out with us. We have clinics and teach them a couple of routines with music so we can see how they do. It takes a little bit of gymnastics, too. The little ones come in at a very low skill level that we have to develop. They come in just thinking it will be fun and then we do the same routine over and over. I try to tell them if they hang on for four months all this hard work will pay off when we start performing.”
Every year we motivation for the young, new Firecrackers is the annual trek to Rupp Arena coming up in a few weeks.
“The older girls always tell the younger ones it will all be worthwhile when they get to UK because they won’t believe how the people will smile and cheer,” Kelly said. “And you know what, it has been that way every year.”
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