Union High School baton-twirling coach stands out in community

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UNION, NJ — Union High School coach Nicole Marie Placca brings something unique to the school’s students: the art of baton twirling. Teenagers and even younger children can now benefit from Placca’s teachings of a sport that may seem almost extinct.

Placca, who hails from Kenilworth, is also a Spanish teacher for grades 9-12 at UHS. She became acquainted with baton twirling in her youth and has been the coach of the school’s baton-twirling team since 2011.

“Baton twirling is a very intricate skill. It involves a great deal of fine-motor skills, hand–eye coordination and it’s a very intricate process of moving your wrists and being able to manipulate a baton, which is a skill in and of itself,” Placca said on Thursday, Oct. 7. “Just the process to learn how to do a toss properly takes months on end, and then you’re combining that skill with teaching students how to dance, how to incorporate gymnastics and then there’s also tricks that involve multiple batons — manipulating two batons at once and juggling three batons. So, it truly is a very unique, intricate craft.”

According to Placca, Kenilworth had a very small school system without many extracurricular activities. Since she took twirling lessons when she was a student there, her school allowed her to join the band and be the school’s feature twirler.

“A long time ago, there was a woman who was a school teacher in Roselle Park. We know her as Ms. Pat, and she ran a baton-twirling program out of a basement of a church right on Tucker Avenue in Union,” Placca said. “This woman ran this for decades … because the girls would take lessons from her, living in Union, and then they would pretty much make up the high school team. They learned how to twirl from her. That’s where I took lessons. I heard about her and I took lessons in that private studio in Union, which is no longer running.”

Placca said UHS baton twirling is one of the few teams left in the sport.

“This program is really unlike the common sports that are around,” she said. “I’ve seen another baton twirler at a sporting event in my entire coaching and performing career.… We are the only school in Union County, and we’re one of the few left in the whole state of New Jersey to have a baton-twirling presence, let alone an entire team.… There’s not many schools left that still have teachers there that can even coach it.

“We’re considered a club, and I’ve taken my girls to competitive organizations that are well-known, and they compete against other private studios, where girls are trained dancers and they’ve been twirling a lot longer than a high school team has,” she continued. “Our team has won against some of the biggest, well-known teams, which is amazing. They’ve won six state championships in three years…. It was a really very special accomplishment for a public school club to go against these well-known teams who were more experienced and get private training.”

COVID-19 made things challenging for the team. Placca said it slowed down the momentum they had, particularly because they couldn’t practice daily.

“I wasn’t able to have my normal tryouts and start teaching girls prior to the football season, so we are a month behind, on top of having to practice extra to make up for all the time that we weren’t practicing,” she said. “So it definitely set us back. But I’m pleasantly surprised that we’re getting there. The girls are very determined. They are hard workers, so we are quickly getting back into things, and we’re vigorously working on our competition choreography, which is really good.”

In addition to the UHS baton-twirling team, Placca has a districtwide baton-twirling clinic at Jefferson Elementary School in the Vauxhall section of Union this year, open to students ages 5 and older from throughout town. She has even taught her first set of boys.

“I always run a free clinic for all of the students in the Union Public Schools, and it serves as a little fundraiser, where parents can donate to our competition programs and our senior fund,” Placca said. “But the main reason why I run these clinics is to bring awareness of the sport and to show students in the district that we still have a program like this.

“The past five years, I’ve been vigorously trying to build a baton-twirling program, much like the one I came from when I was a little girl, and I hold classes at Diamond Gymnastics (Academy) in Cranford,” she continued. “I do it two days a week, and there are many different classes that are geared toward teaching real baton twirling that happens outside the high school football games. I have a competition team that will be competing privately, which is great, and then I have a handful of girls that range from 5 to 15 that are taking consistent lessons with hopes to compete in the future, as well. That’s my side business, but I’m proud of that, because I am the only private coach in this area to be offering these classes, other than it being a small recreation program or a small summer camp that would happen. This is a full program, which I’m proud of and it’s unique for even the gym to offer it.”

Placca said that, when she thinks back to her childhood, she didn’t really fit in. She said she wasn’t the traditional athlete, the typical dancer or cheerleader, and it wasn’t until she learned how to baton twirl that she really felt she was special and fit in.

“My hope is to just continue sharing this passion and this amazing sport with so many kids, because, as a teacher, I see firsthand how there are so many kids who want to join a sport but either don’t have the prior skills or they don’t have the ability,” she said. “This sport really gives me the chance to show our students that you don’t have to fit into a perfect box or be a traditional athlete. You can pick up a sport later in life and still succeed. It’s giving these kids the ability to feel special by what they personally need and what their strengths are.”

UHS athletic director Linda Ionta said that Placca is a dedicated teacher as well as an accomplished twirler, and that she has a gift of sharing that talent.

“She has really been pushing and trying to generate more interest in twirling, and she’s done a terrific job,” said Ionta on Saturday, Oct. 9. “She reaches out to the younger kids, she runs clinics and, when the kids get older, they become twirlers for her. But she puts a lot of time in with them and she’s dedicated. She really does a great job, and we’re really proud of her and the way she handles herself. It’s awesome.”

Suzette Cavadas, the former mayor of Union and a current Township Committee member, said on Friday, Oct. 9, “One thing I can say about Nicole is that she definitely cares for the children, and she encourages the kids to believe in themselves and be their very best, because she believes in that, too.”

Photos Courtesy of Nicole Marie Placca