Addition of Central students keeps Clayton Ridge Drill Team tradition alive

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The Clayton Ridge Drill Team included dancers from both Clayton Ridge and Central this season. Members were Peyton Finley (left), Madelyn Gregerson, Gracie Cummer, Mia Brandt, Claire Brandt and Lilly Meana. (Submitted photo)

By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register


It was 1981 when Julie Rastetter had an idea to offer more activities for girls, including forming a drill team. Though it was met by some skepticism, she pushed forward and the Guttenberg Pom Pom Express was born. 


The group practiced and performed at basketball games in the early years, while also attending competitions—always growing, learning and overcoming resistance. While Rastetter always fought for the girls and the sport, there was some sense it was not being taken seriously. 


Undeterred, Rastetter looked for ways to not just grow the team, but get more people onboard. One way she overcame the perception was getting parents involved, specifically in routines. Once parents realized how difficult learning routines was and how much work is involved, attitudes started to change. 


Of course, it helped that the team was successful, coming away from competitions with trophies. Success, coupled with time and improved progressive attitudes, has a way of erasing the “grief in the hallways,” which has dissipated over the years. 


Some of it disappeared quite quickly as the mid-1980s rolled around. That’s when the Clayton Ridge School Board decided it was time to bring the drill team in affiliation with the school and it became the Guttenberg Drill Team, which it remained until the merger of Guttenberg and Garnavillo in the early 2000s. At that point, the group became, and remains, the Clayton Ridge Drill Team. 


Rastetter has seen numerous advances in the sport, including the introduction of scholarships, along with it being more respected. It’s also become more competitive, with more teams, more intricate routines and smaller poms poms. Another thing that changed is Rastetter’s role, as she went from head coach to assistant coach due to a technicality involved in retiring. 


Taking her place was Kaitlyn Kuehl-Berns, a drill team member from 2015 to 2019 who was highly successful, earning first place with the group at state as a freshman, junior and senior. In fall 2020, she joined the team as an assistant. When it became clear Rastetter would step down, she became not just the obvious choice, but the one heavily promoted and recommended by Rastetter. 


When she was given the job, Kuehl-Berns admitted she “went home and cried.” 


The drill team had a tremendous impact on Kuehl-Berns, and she recalled how important it was to her. The quiet and reserved coach brings a level of confidence to the team, backed by success, though she is always the first to credit the dancers. She has to bring the team together, get them to work as a unit and “manage all the personalities.” 


Kuehl-Berns does all the choreography, as did Rastetter before her. There is something more personal about creating the routines, and it gives the team more ownership. It gives them a “stake in the routine,” Kuehl-Berns said. 


While Rastetter struggled to get the drill team recognized as a serious sport, Kuehl-Berns is tackling a different matter: declining numbers. 


Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the team had at least 15 dancers. In recent years, that number has slowly declined to the point where, last season, the team had five girls, which prevented them from participating in state, which requires six. 


Some of this decline is placed on low enrollment that has impacted rural Iowa schools. Add to that a growth in other activities and more students forgoing participation in school activities to work, it’s becoming harder not just for the drill team to fill its roster, but almost all sports. 


Kuehl-Berns took the five-member team to watch state a year ago, motivating them to want to compete this year. This prompted Kuehl-Berns to reach out to Central Activities Director Aaron Reinhart, to gauge the interest of Central students in joining the drill team and bolstering the roster. 


Reinhart had already heard parents and students express an interest in dance over the years, but, for whatever reason, it usually ended in the conversation phase. When he was approached by Kuehl-Berns, he scheduled a meeting with interested students and, being more of a “matchmaker” in the process, put the two sides in contact. 


Because dance is not a sanctioned sport, the combining of schools did not require a sharing agreement which exists for baseball and girls wrestling, also shared with Clayton Ridge. Part of Reinhart’s willingness to engage in the process was the beneficial nature. 


“It was an opportunity that they had not had before, and wouldn’t have had without Clayton Ridge presenting their need. The students gained skills in the area of dance, also learned to perform on command and compete and work together as a team,” Reinhart said. 


Kuehl-Berns’s efforts to lead the drill team back to state and revitalize its growth now has a current squad of six girls. They are all embracing the opportunity with the close-knit group, which is supportive, passionate and, in their own words, like a “family.” 


Clayton Ridge freshman Claire Brandt joined the team because her older sister was on it and because she already had some experience in dance through Stretch & Strut, which is open to K-5 students. 


There were some nerves entering her first season on the drill team, but the friendliness of the group made those easy to overcome. Using muscles she wasn’t even aware she had was an eye-opening experience, though, as was getting used to the precision and practice, which requires a certain level of dedication Claire possesses. 


Claire also noted how it’s a good group of people, and there is sadness when the season is over, probably due to the friendships forged during practices and performances and in social settings. The drill team is “like a family,” she said. They work together, perform together and win or lose together. 


Teammate Lilly Meana, who is in her third year on the team and is the sister of coach Kuehl-Berns, offered similar responses. She got involved by watching her sister perform, and there is a family history of cheer and dance. 


In her time on the team, Lilly has enjoyed performing in front of crowds and the cheers it evokes. There is something about entertaining and impressing an audience with difficult routines made to look easy. The applause makes the dedication worth it. 


While Lilly also touched on how nerve-wracking performing can be, it gets easier when you know what to do, and with Kuehl-Berns at the helm, the team is always prepared. 


Lilly also touched on how preparation is aided by the team being on the same page and that they’re “all out there together,” on the dance floor. That togetherness creates confidence, something she has gained more of on the drill team. 


The other team member from Clayton Ridge is Claire’s cousin, Mia Brandt, who immediately touched on the “family atmosphere” of the group. Mia is a fan of the hip-hop routines that offer a flowing and free form of expression, which is different from the more structured military routines. Mia also noted an increased level of confidence since joining the team, which can lead to being more successful. 


The idea of enhanced confidence is something Rastetter noticed in comments from parents, who saw their daughters become more confident, prepared and self-assured. 


Also on the team are three students from Central, Madelyn Gregerson, Gracie Cummer and Peyton Finley. 


Madelyn has long had a passion for dance and was part of a dance company for about eight years when she was younger. This motivated her to take advantage of the new opportunity, and after overcoming some initial hesitancy, she “found that passion again.” Madelyn spoke highly of the camaraderie that exists on the drill team and the “unique experiences” it provides. 


She also praised how eager and welcoming the Clayton Ridge members were, which made joining the team as a newcomer even easier. During her time on the team, Madelyn has learned how to be a better communicator and have better time management skills, which are essentially due to the schedule and practices. When it was all over, there was profound sadness, as she said, “I don’t want it to be over.”


Gracie was “immediately intrigued” by the drill team, and as someone who tries to do as many extracurricular activities as possible, it seemed like a logical step. While this activity took her out of her comfort zone, after tryouts, there was an “immediate sense” she “belonged.” 


“Everyone was so nice and welcoming, when I had no clue what I was doing. One thing led to another and I was on the team, practicing to get ready for summer performances. I would say that the desire for change and something new in my life really led to this decision,” Gracie said.


Throughout her initial and only season, as a senior, Gracie has learned the importance of being reliable and putting in  work and effort. The routines simply do not work if the entire team is not functioning properly, especially under the pressure of dance routines, which don’t come with a second chance or timeout in the action.


“With dance, you get one chance. It is not like a basketball game where, if you mess up, you have the next play to redeem yourself. Being prepared and ready to do your best the first and only time is a very important lesson I have learned,” Gracie said. 


This is something both Rastetter and Kuehl-Berns commented on as well. You get one shot at the routine, and if mistakes are made, you can’t fix them. They are permanent. It demands two minutes of perfection.


With such expectations and pressure, Kuehl-Berns readies the team for the experience and what “they’ll feel when they take the floor.” Win or lose, perfect or close to it, what matters to Kuehl-Berns is something much more. 


“If they can walk off the floor and tell us, as a coach, that they did the best job that they could possibly do, that’s worth more than a trophy,” Kuehl-Berns said.


Rastetter added, “Because it’s not the hardware in the end. It’s knowing that those girls, in their hearts, they did their best then they are the true winner.”


To label the Clayton Ridge Drill Team program as successful would be an understatement. In the four decades since it formed, the team has amassed 26 state championships, finished second 21 times and third 13 times, while also tallying two fourth-place finishes. Not to mention, the team has received top academic awards six times. Those are numbers any sport would be proud to have. 


At this year’s state championship, 251 total teams were entered, and Clayton Ridge earned two division ones, exceeding expectations for such a small, inexperienced team that started the season with many unknowns. 


The performance capped a season that started in the summer and required eight to 10 hours of practice per week, dance camps and countless performances at games and events like Sweet Corn Days. It will all culminate in a showcase in January, when the team will put on almost two hours comprising 12 routines, with help from a few other schools during the event. 


This level of sustained success is owed to the leadership of Rastetter, as well as Kuehl-Berns, who was praised by all involved.


Reinhart stated, “I can’t say enough about the leadership coach Kuehl-Berns provided this year. Bringing students from two schools together to one team is a unique challenge with many potential hiccups. She has not only done this well, she has created opportunities for them to build strong relationships amongst each other.”


Also praising Kuehl-Berns was Gracie, who said, “My time on the team wouldn’t have been the same without coach Kuehl-Berns being patient with all four of us new girls. She welcomed us and took four people new to the team and two people with no dance experience at all and made us ready to compete on the state floor… I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything.”

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