Through quarantines, virtual practices and the safety protocols that accompany the 2021 season, the Faribault Emeralds spent much of the year a hair or two out of sync.
As the team progressed through its shortened season, the on-floor results weren't noticeably off-kilter against a Big 9 Conference-only schedule, but Faribault was not operating at the level that's previously allowed the program to win eight straight Big 9 titles and qualify for 29 consecutive state tournaments. After last week's regular-season finale meet at Owatonna, and during this week of practice leading up to Saturday's Big 9 championships at Austin High School, however, the Emeralds are beginning to take that shape.
"This week has been kind of a turning point," Faribault coach Lisa Dahl said. "Everyone is working together really well and cheering each other on and clicking together as a team."
The reason for the longer-than-normal progression was how the season started. After initially beginning practice Jan. 4, half of Faribault's team was forced into quarantine.
That meant no meets to gain early reps of the jazz and kick routines and two weeks of practices in which half the team was in the gym and the other half was at home doing their best to keep up through a computer screen.
Little by little, however, the tweaks implemented each week started to round the Emeralds into championship shape, culminating this week with what Dahl believes are a pair of routines capable of sweeping the Big 9 yet again.
"This week we focused a little bit more on jazz changes and just drilling our kick dance," Dahl said. "Depending on how it goes tomorrow, we'll see if we change anything before sections."
While that progress was slower than normal, Dahl credits her team's five seniors — Anna Behning, Makayla Kellen, Baylee Pearson, Maria Pierce and Avalon Roberts — with ensuring the team's forward momentum did not come to a screeching halt with half the team sequestered.
"Our leadership was very important during that time," Dahl said. "It always is, but during that time it was very important to keep the girls motivated. We have a great group of seniors who are very positive, very motivating and hard workers. They have been great, and they really helped the girls get through that time."
A 21st Big 9 championship is only the start for the Emeralds, however, who still have eyes on a modified state championships, which this season takes place at Champlin Park High School instead of the traditional site, Target Center.
While Faribault has a good idea of where it stands in terms of the Big 9, the picture is a bit fuzzier when it expands to include the rest of Section 1AA, since only Albert Lea, Austin and Winona share a conference residence with the Emeralds.
"We've only been competing within our conference, so we haven't seen many times from our section," Dahl said. "It's hard to figure out where you stand when you're not competing against some of those other teams as often. It's definitely challenging, but we're lucky that we're able to compete at all."