The smell of saltwater filled the air as the two buses unloaded into the Safari Motel. The sounds of almost 50 excited girls’ voice rang throughout the parking lot and you could almost feel the excitement.
“This is it, I thought to myself,” said Kara McCaffrey. “We’re finally here.”
“Here” was Wildwood, N.J., the place where McCaffrey and the rest of her high school dance team had worked to arrive at all year long.
The Tournament of Bands (T.O.B.) holds their championships every two years and this was McCaffrey’s year. She served as her team’s captain and wasn’t letting another championship slip through her fingers again.
“It was such a big disappointment in Wildwood my sophomore year, when we ended up in second place,” said McCaffrey. “I felt like it was my responsibility to deliver a championship to this group, especially the seniors.”
Those other seniors included three of McCaffrey’s best friends since elementary school. Between the four of them, they’d been through two major heartbreaks, one divorce, and one death in the family.
“The journey we’d taken with each other and the friendships we built meant just as much as winning that championship,” said McCaffrey. “But to end at the top was something we all wanted to do.”
To end at the top for McCaffrey and her teammates required them to beat St. Mary’s.
The two teams finished at the top of their divisions for the past nine years and were bitter rivals.
“We hated each other like Pittsburgh fans and Philadelphia fans hate each other,” McCaffrey said. “It was one of the most intense things I’ve ever been a part of.”
The interaction between the two teams was limited, but never pleasant. Team members exchanged words before and after preliminary performances as well as at chance encounters.
“We used to walk the boardwalk at night, talking to guys and having fun,” McCaffrey said, “but we were always reminded of the task at hand when we saw St. Mary’s walking the boardwalk in their championship jackets.”
As the final round of performances drew closer and closer, McCaffrey began to feel the pressure. The buzz around the conventions center seemed to revolve around whether or not her team could rebound from the heartbreaking loss two years ago.
The night before they were to take the floor against St. Mary’s for the championship, McCaffrey gathered her teammates in her hotel room. The tiny room swelled to capacity. She spoke slowly, savoring the moment, and thanked everyone for the memories of the last four years.
“I didn’t sleep at all that night,” said McCaffrey.
The two teams warmed up back stage, side by side, anxiously awaiting their last chance to prove themselves as champions. The disciplined and veteran teams went out and hit their routines as they usually did.
Except this time it felt different.
“It was my last time, for all of it,” said McCaffrey. “The last time I’d have the chance to beat St. Mary’s, the last time my parents would see me dance, and sadly, the last time I’d be able to dance next to these girls who had become like family to me.”
There was only one thing left to do. Wait. There were other divisions of dance and flag that had yet to perform. McCaffrey rounded up her team for one last pep talk before the waiting began.
“Those two hours we had to wait until the awards ceremony were the longest of my life,” said McCaffrey.
Finally, the teams lined up on the floor with McCaffrey at the front of the line, leading her team to its fate.
“I just stood there, praying to hear St. Mary’s name because they announced the runner-up first,” recalled McCaffrey. “And it was the sweetest revenge to be standing right next to them in line when they announced them as a runner-up to us.”
The team exploded into a crazy celebration.
“We probably should have been a little bit more humble, but it was four years of competition, and most of the time, losses at the hand of St. Mary’s,” said McCaffrey.
“But that wasn’t the best part,” McCaffrey said. “The best part was having my best friends with me, another journey completed together.”