UNION, NJ — Seven girls, poised and graceful, stand at attention, batons at their sides. They are focused, serious, and ready to churn out another impressive series of synchronized moves.
This is the Union High School Baton Twirling Competition Team, and they are an exclusive group.
According to Nicole Marie Placca, who has been coaching this team since its inception two years ago, baton twirling is a rare sport these days.
Placca, who competed throughout college and in state, national, and regional competitions, said that years ago there was a twirling studio in the area, and she was instantly mesmerized by the sport.
She said that she was the only one twirling when she attended Kenilworth High School. “I was the half-time show,” she recalled. “I was the only twirler at the school.”
Placca, who has been coaching for 18 years and who is a certified instructor and judge, said that the opportunity to coach the team is a wonderful opportunity.
“Twirling is a dying sport,” she said. “I’m blessed to have a job teaching twirling in the district.”
But what, exactly, do twirlers do?
The girls prepare for their next set of instructions from their coach, and the seriousness and concentration in their eyes is visible. Then, in perfect unison, they begin a series of steps, twirls, and then up go their batons to the top of the high gym ceiling.
Beneath their spinning batons, the seven girls execute a series of perfect moves — a combination of gymnastics and dance — then, incredibly, all catch their batons as they sail at lightning speed back down into their outstretched hands.
They make it look easy, but according to Placca, twirling is far more difficult than it looks.
“People don’t realize how difficult it is,” said Placca. And, according to Placca, the sport is so intense that there have even been injuries.
“We had one girl out with a concussion,” said Placca, who said that a team member was hit in the head by a baton. “There have been concussions, twisted ankles, and bruises.”
The team practices six hours a week at Battle Hill Elementary School in Union, and the practice has paid off.
“They’re learning things and doing things that girls in private studios who are paying for classes are doing,” Placca said. “They’re hard workers, they’re devoted. They certainly deserve every recognition that they are getting.“
The team began the season — which began in February — with 17 awards, and winning first place for both the Twirl Team category and the Twirls and Dance Team category.
According to Placca, the wins are an amazing feat considering the newness and relative inexperience of the team. “They won against girls who have much more experience than they have,” said Placca proudly.
Placca said that she will be bringing the team to the United States Twirling Association Competition being held in Bayonne this year — one of the biggest competitions in the United States.
“It’s great for them to see the different levels of twirling,“ she said of the upcoming competition.
Alyssa Squillante, a junior at Union High School, joined the team during her freshman year. “I’ve grown to love it over the years,” she said. “It’s different. Not many people can do it.”
According to Squillante, it was her older cousin that first got her into the sport. “My cousin gave me her old baton when I was little,” she recalled. “And I really liked it.”
Squillante, who also studies martial arts, said that twirling is quite a workout. “I go home sweaty all the time,” she said. “You finish the routine and you’re out of breath.”
Squillante said that although they get a lot of positive attention and recognition these days, it wasn’t always like that.
“When we first started out no one liked us,” she said. “Someone once dropped a pencil during class and said, ‘Look, I’m a twirler,’ to make fun of us. Now people come up to us and congratulate us. Now they know we’re good.”
Christiana Selby, a sophomore, is into her second year on the team. According to Selby, her sister, Tiahna, was on the team, which inspired her to join.
“I tried out,” she said. “I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity since the school has it.”
Selby said that competing is her favorite part of being on the team. “The competitions are really fun,” she said. “Ms. Placca gives us really good routines so we have something to work towards.”
Anastasia Ristova, a junior, is a relative newcomer to the team, having just joined in June. “It keeps me balanced,” she said of twirling with the team. “Coming here makes me happy, so it makes my day happier, too. I love it. They’re like family to me.”
And her favorite thing about being on a twirling team? “You get to do something that not a lot of people know how to do,” Ristova said.
“Before I joined the team I thought twirling was impossible. Now I’m doing it. Now I know it’s possible.”
Placca said that it is amazing to watch the transformative power of the sport and knowing that you are part of an elite team.
Other members of the team include Maria Asitimbay, Daniela Arrieta, Tiahna Selby and Kayla Nunez.
“It teaches them important values like hard work, respect, grace, and carrying yourself in a certain way,” Placca said of the sport. “They’re good girls. To give them this type of experience, to watch them blossom is amazing. They carry themselves with a certain grace, and it teaches them that hard work and determination pay off.”
For Placca, coaching the team is a special and important part of her life. “It has a very special place in my heart,” she said.