The Shining Stars, Philomath High’s dance and drill team, features 11 athletes on this year’s squad, which has a new head coach in Stefanie Larson. (Photo provided by Stefanie Larson)

Philomath High senior Stella Neville didn’t become involved in competitive dancing until her freshman year. She remembers how one of her friends, Morgan Gross, got her into it for the first time.

“It was Morgan — she was like, ‘I’m going to the dance trials and you should come with me,’” Neville recalled. “I was like, OK, I’ll just go to the trials and that doesn’t mean I’m going to be on the team. And then I was on the team.”

Not only is Neville on the team, but she’s one of two captains. Gross is the other captain and they’ve been leading a contingent of 11 dancers in their final season with the program.

Stefanie Larson took over this year as the Shining Stars head coach. She also ended up getting involved through a friend — former longtime coach Lori Haslam.

“I’m friends with Lori and had reached out to her and said ‘I’d like to start getting more involved in dance, my kids are getting a little older,’ and she was like, ‘oh, I actually might know of a job for it’ and so I just applied,” Larson said.

Haslam led the program for 17 years and now serves as a coach with Oregon State University’s dance team.

“It has grown from last year … we’re definitely still down from pre-pandemic,” Larson said, mentioning that the program typically includes around 16 students. “Last year we had nine, this year we have 11, so it’s growing and we’re excited about it. We have a good mix of freshmen-sophomore-junior-senior and both of our seniors are captains and have done a great job. It’s been a great year so far.”

Juniors Abigail Workman, foreground, and Kayli Blake perform with the dance team during halftime of a football game last fall. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Joining Gross and Neville on the team are juniors Kayli Blake, Alexa Eckhold, Jadyn McMullen and Abigail Workman, sophomore Shaylyn Noble and freshmen Astrid Cropp, Ginnah Hopper, Gianna Lusardi and Adriana Nanoski.

“I really like just being with the team,” Neville said about the sport. “It’s a really fun group of people and we all work really hard. It’s fun to just go for a common goal.”

Neville, who also plays on the PHS tennis team, said dance provides physical challenges.

“It definitely tests you physically because there is a lot of really fast movement in a short amount of time and you don’t really get to stop and breathe, you just have to keep moving,” Neville said. “It’s the same like other activities, other sports, but it’s all crammed into like a two-minute dance.”

The Shining Stars have competed in several competitions this season.

“We’ve been doing awesome and state will be our eighth competition,” Larson said. “I think we’ve brought a trophy home from every competition.”

PHS hosted on Feb. 11 its Dancing With the Stars event, which serves as an important fundraiser for the program. 

“We got a lot of community support at that competition … that was really wonderful to see everybody come out,” said assistant coach Michelle Park, who is also in her first year with the program.

Junior Alexa Eckhold performs with the dance team during a routine performed at halftime of a basketball game. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

The Dance and Drill State Championships for all classifications will run March 17-18 at the 5,000-seat Salem Pavilion. The 4A/3A/2A/1A’s competitions in the various categories will begin at around 3 p.m. on that Friday with all-state, drill down and the grand finale following the team performances leading up to the trophy ceremony at around 8:45 p.m.

“They used to do a state season where basically each school could enter like a four- to five-minute dance in any type of genre or type of dance,” Larson said. “They changed it to categories now, so each school can take one dance in any category they want and then you can qualify a second routine.”

During this season, Philomath qualified for state in hip hop and will also compete in Salem with its jazz routine.

“We have actually had four different competition routines that we’ve been doing,” Larson said. “They did novelty and traditional and then for state, we’re taking jazz and hip hop.”

The OSAA championships feature six categories — traditional, jazz, hip hop, kick, pom and show. There is also a drill-down competition that any student dancer can enter.

Neville said the jazz routine is fun to perform.

“I think the funnest part of it is that you get to be really sassy and just have a lot of fun with it the whole time,” she said. “The hardest part is that a lot of it is really fast, like really sharp movements, and you have to make sure you’re keeping control the whole time.”

Senior Stella Neville, seen here last fall at a football game performance, said her friend Morgan Gross, now also a senior, talked her into trying out for dance back when they were freshman. Both made all-state in January. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

The hip hop routine brings a lot of energy.

“You have fun while you’re dancing but the hardest part is that there’s a lot of up-and-down movement,” Neville said. “I’m always exhausted at the end but it’s worth it.”

Neville and Gross both earned Dance Drill Coaches Association all-state status at an event this winter. The participants learned a section of a routine before gathering in Tigard in January for the auditioning. A panel of three judges chose who moved forward out of the first round and those qualifying then learned the second section of the routine.

Gross and Neville were two of only four 4A/3A/2A/1A dancers named all-state.

“It’s a lot of really high intensity — you have to absorb a lot of choreography but it was really rewarding,” Neville said. “When I started, I had no experience and to just come out on the other side and to make the all-state team, it’s just so rewarding.”

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.