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The City Journals

Hillcrest drill devoted to continue its 58-year legacy

Jan 11, 2021 11:21AM ● By Julie Slama

Taken before mask mandate, the 2020-21 Hillcrest Drill Team strikes a pose. (Photo courtesy of Wish Dance Photography)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

For 58 years, a select group of girls at Hillcrest High each year bond into a sisterhood to provide school spirit at pep assemblies and at football and basketball games through precision performances. 

This year, even during the COVID-19 pandemic, or maybe even because of it, the connection is great, said Hillcrest High head drill coach Chelsea Divine.

“These 33 girls are incredible—their resiliency and ability to face this crazy year and still give it their all,” she said. “They are mentally tough. I could not have been more proud of them during the spring.”

That’s because when it was time for tryouts, Hillcrest and other schools were on a soft closure following the health guidelines set by Gov. Gary Herbert. The girls learned routines on their own, were selected and trained together, yet apart, via Zoom for five weeks.

During that time, dancers focused on basic skills, technique, military combinations and turns. They’d rehearse with one coach instructing and two others with two laptops watching girls perform.

“We like to joke that we were the ‘Zoom champions.’ We were able to kind of manage it that way and still provide feedback to the girls,” Divine said, adding that when they were able to gather in the summer, every girl had learned the basics, so they were able to begin together with strong practices. “We have amazing captains and amazing seniors who literally would come up with a unity activity they would do over Zoom so all the girls would play, and it would keep them going.”

In the fall, the team performed at football games. Only a few of the hundreds who typically watch Hillcrest drill were able to see them in person because of restricted seating, following health guidelines. Instead, fans watched the team via livestream.

Even when Hillcrest was dismissed for two weeks this fall when positive case counts reached a 1% threshold, Divine said they were able to do some strength training and conditioning as well as work on technique. 

With their first competitions set this winter, Divine knows they may perform at times with holes if girls are placed on quarantine. First up is the Juan Diego Catholic High Invitational, followed by Bountiful High Invitational and Rocky Mountain Classic in January. 

The competitions will include traditional military and dance routines and also a new category—show—that this year will combine hip-hop, character and prop dances. 

“It’s an all-encompassing number and there’s a lot going on; it’s like a mind explosion. It’s given the girls something to look forward to and just have fun where they can dance and create something amazing,” said Divine, who brought in a Utah Jazz stunt team member to help work on skills.

The season concludes with region on Jan. 23 and state in early February.

Hillcrest has a legacy of performing well at region and state, having won more than 20 region titles and seven state titles from 1999 through 2016. 

“We have the legacy of Hillcrest drill that has always been strong. I’m so honored to be a part of this program because I’ve had incredible coaches come before me, who have set the standard and the tone, and I think, among us, we’ve been able to maintain that because we’ve learned from each other,” Divine said.  

Hillcrest drill was known as the Marchioness or “perfect marcher” when the school opened in 1962. The team of 50 girls, advised by Dorothy Schmidt, were considered a pep club that “not only promoted school spirit, but established enthusiasm, respect and admiration for our new school,” according to Hillcrest’s yearbook.

The next year, the yearbook said, “By displaying unique marches during half time, executing tricky hand movements and cheering their hearts out at games, they have proven to be the backbone of our school spirit.”

By the end of the 1960s, they wore “lively green dresses with bright Hs” and cheered “Green White Dynamite,” were known to decorate team lockers and hold annual teas with other school clubs, sing the school hymn after victories and hosted the Marchioness annual spring formal. In 1969, 62 girls also marched at a University of Utah football game.

In the 1970s, they introduced new rituals, such as the traditional flashlight march, which had each girl hold two flashlights and at the end of the march, they formed an H, dropped their pom poms and performed a ripple hand movement with flashlights only. The Marchioness marched at halftime of a Utah Stars game in 1971 and combined with the pep band to march to “Our Boys are Fine” in 1972. In 1973, a scholarship tea was introduced, and the Marchioness had their own song.

It was also in the mid-70s that they transitioned to more of a drill team. In 1978, they took first in the BYU homecoming parade—the first parade they ever entered. They also competed at state and nationals under new head coach Lausanne Jensen as Schmidt stepped down after 18 years.

In 1979, Hillcrest’s drill team won its first national competition in California. They performed two routines in Santa Monica before waiting with 6,000 other girls at the L.A. Sports Arena for results.

In the early 1980s, the Marchioness competed in several area parades, state and nationals. Jodi Maxfield was head coach.

“When the position opened up, I jumped in and just loved it,” she said. “It was my passion; it’s artistic and disciplined.”

In 1983, UHSAA sanctioned drill as a sport, in support of Title IX, which gives female athletes equal opportunity in sports at educational institutions that receive federal funds, UHSAA Assistant Director Jan Whittaker said. 


Hillcrest drill team performs in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York, as seen here, in 1985. (Photo courtesy of Jodi Maxfield)

 

Novelty was a popular category, where drill teams would carry extravagant props to use in their choreographed performances.

“They had thematic giant sets, which cost enormous amounts of money and it just got bigger and more elaborate in cost,” she said, adding that from those days of backdrops there have been changes including setting a limit of $600 per dancer per school. 

Maxfield said she recalled when they competed at nationals in California, they were allowed to carry gun powder, with special permission, on the plane for their cannon prop.

Libby (Davidson) Williams, who marched from 1984-1987, remembers huge sets her three years—a teddy bear, a shipwreck and a vaccination syringe that took about 15 members to carry. 

“Everyone just loved those the most; they were crowd pleasers,” she said.

Williams didn’t grow up dancing, but she worked hard to make the team and learned to do the splits—something she can still do today. Once she was on the team, she worked even harder.

“It seemed liked hours we’d practice, especially our kick line, but I loved every single person on the team, and we did it for each other. Even now when we run into each other, we’re just so glad to see each other since we have a bond,” she said.

Performances continued to be a part of Hillcrest Marchioness. Williams recalled performing for the Utah Jazz and in parades.

In 1985, Maxfield took the team to perform at the U.S. Capitol and the July 4 Washington, D.C. parade, at the Statue of Liberty in New York City, and the Freedom Festival parade in Philadelphia. 

“We were invited to march in the parade; it was a big honor to be chosen to represent Utah,” she said. 

During that time, Hillcrest claimed several region wins and detail was given to every move, every prop and every costume.

“I remember sewing a lot of costumes to try to stretch our budget,” she said, adding that often she’d add sequins and trim to basic outfits. 

It was the night before a competition when she was sewing until 3 a.m. to add trim to gauntlets—their formal gloves —only to have one member forget her pair, so as they were about to take the floor, every girl took off their gloves so they’d still match.

“I can laugh about that now,” she said. “There definitely is a legacy at Hillcrest. There’s an atmosphere of drill when they’re pushed to be the best. The girls can practice hours every day, but yet they’re good friends and have a love for the team. They’re working hard for themselves and for the girl next to them.”

UHSAA’s Whittaker was a coach at Bountiful High then, accumulating 18 state titles. 

“Hillcrest has a huge tradition of success, innovation and clean performances,” she said. “They excel in their technique. Hillcrest is always in the competition; they’ve had good coaching and their program draws talented students and dancers.”

The Huskies won region in 1987 and were still known to practice hours each week, under new adviser Cathy Brimley. In the 1988 yearbook, Teressa Toombs is quoted, “We live, sleep, and breath drill team,” and teammate Doreen Leek added, “We come to school in the dark and leave school in the dark.” 

In 1990, with only six returning members, their legacy continued, both in terms of success and sisterhood. Drill president Kelly Anderson is quoted in the yearbook: “After a few years, the trophies we have won will be forgotten, but the friends we have made we will remember forever.”

In 1992, under Brenda Schoenfeld (later Searle) and Mechele Bosco the team grabbed a second national title. By 1994, they had won region three years straight. 

More national titles came at the turn of the decade with a bike routine in the prop category that won every year. In 2001, senior Tiffany Sharp was quoted in the yearbook as saying, “My favorite routine was the bikes, because no one thought we could do it.” In 2003, Heidi Moss told the yearbook staff: “Bikes is my favorite routine because who else can spin their bike and jump over it?”

The team continued to compete at national competitions in California, Florida, Texas and New York; marched in the St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York City; danced at the introduction of the drivers at the Indy 500; and at several venues during the 2002 Winter Olympics, which was when Searle was named Utah Dance/Drill Association

5A Coach of the Year. Six years later, she was named the National Federation of State High School Associations’ Section 7 Spirit Coach of the Year.

During the Bosco-Searle era, the Marchioness name transitioned to HD for Hillcrest Drill.

“It was clean and simple. Marchioness was never pronounced correctly, and we just wanted a statement name that was simple and clear,” said Searle, who now goes by Harper. She had competed under Maxfield when she was on the drill team. 

Bosco and Searle coached together for 22 years.

“Mechele and I are very competitive people,” Harper said. “Mechele had won several gymnastics state titles before coming to drill. Dance was not her strong suit, but coaching was. So together with my dance and choreography background and her coaching experience, we made a great team. We lived HD, we talked nonstop about it, planned and prepared together and branded our team in a way that no other team did. We were not afraid to push boundaries, have high expectations, try new things. Everything we did, we did to impress, to make a statement.”

In 2014, Bosco retired and the following year, Divine, who was a drill team captain at Hillcrest under the two coaches, joined the coaching staff. Two years later, Divine and Searle’s team won 4A region and state championships. They also lead the team to take first in three routines at Miss Drill Team USA international competition. In 2017, HD won the sportsmanship award at state, and traveled to New York City to take classes from the Rockettes in Broadway Dance Center.

In 2018, Searle was named UHSAA 6A coach of the year after the team took region for the fourth year straight. A retirement show was held in her honor.

“Dancers from all of my years coaching came to that show wearing their drill jackets and they did a special performance combining several of the most memorable routines over the 28 years,” she said. “Of course, I cried all the way through it.”

Since then, Divine has led the team; her most challenging time was the following year when junior Olivia Rodgerson died from a car accident. The team dedicated its season to their teammate. HD also performed in New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day parade and attended dance classes by Rockettes.

“Olivia’s accident really affected me,” Divine said, saying yoga helped her recuperate.

She has incorporated yoga into the team’s regiment as a time to give members a chance to focus. 

“Before the girls perform, we always take five deep breaths as a team and take that moment of silence to focus. I think with the pandemic and the stress and anxiety of it all, we need extra time to breathe and to be calm and focus on what matters most. I think sometimes in athletics, we can be so focused on the trophy, but sometimes, they need to be reminded that they’re awesome and they’re enough,” Divine said.

Last year, before the pandemic hit, HD rallied to place in the top three finishes in military, hip hop and character at the national Contest of Champions in Florida.

“This team is really strong, they really had to bond in a different way, and I think now that we are able to come together, they value it so much knowing we could lose this opportunity at any point if we get shut down. I feel it’s actually encouraged us to appreciate it even more, and appreciate each other even more, and not take it for granted,” Divine said. “Hillcrest drill is our family. It’s not just a thing we show up and do, it’s a huge part of who we are.”