FAIRFIELD — When the members of the Trumbull High School cheerleading team prepared for the start of their routine at Saturday’s FCIAC championships, admittedly no one knew what to expect.
Not the girls, not the large crowd at Fairfield Warde, not their coach, Jane Marella.
“I didn’t even know what was going to happen,” Marella said.
Two weeks earlier, the Eagles had their first competition since last June, when Abby Anderson, a 15-year-old sophomore and one of the most popular and talented members of the team, tragically took her own life.
The team had grieved together, gone through counseling together, opened up and expressed their feelings together.
But they had not done the one thing that they really shared with Anderson: performed together.
“We never thought about it or prepared for it,” said Lisa Szymanski, one of the Eagles’ captains, prior to practice Wednesday night. “It was our first competition without Abby. Right before, when we were in the hall, it all hit us. We all started balling our eyes out. We had just gotten called out to the mat and it was very hard. Even the freshmen who didn’t know her, they watched us and they started to cry.”
In the eight months since, the Eagles had trained and cheered at football games, but actual competition, this was something different. It was hard to erase the memory of Anderson, a skilled flyer, gracefully soaring in the air.
Scars had soothed but not healed, because they never fully do when searching for an answer to a question that can’t be answered. Still, that search party goes on.
“I didn’t expect it to happen the way it did. I was even crying,” Marella said.
There was a fortnight before the FCIAC championships, the first big highlight of the season. Trumbull finished second a year before. It was now at a crossroad.
The Eagles opted for the path that was most familiar: to turn all the negative pain into positive energy. They met again with a guidance counselor from the school. They discussed their goals, re-worked the routine.
“We talked about the importance of what we had been doing,” Marella said. “We hadn’t been going through this training to not win.”
Most of all, the Eagles channeled Anderson’s spirit.
“Abby would want us to do well and place in the FCIACs,” Szymanski said. “We said let’s go out there and do it for her.”
With a routine that Marella said was not the Eagles’ best, but a home run considering the emotional baggage, they finished third, behind Ludlowe, which won its fourth title in six years, and Staples.
“I think we did amazing for everything we’d gone through,” said Libby Masi, Anderson’s closest friend since the 3rd grade. “We’d worked so hard. Once we were done it was such a good feeling.”
Szymanski said besides the impassioned sentiments that had been stirred, of a secondary nature was finding someone to replace Anderson’s unique skill set. Szymanski equated it to a football team losing a running back.
“It takes a lot to be a flyer,” Szymanski said. “It is a really tough challenge.”
The Eagles were well-supported at the FCIAC championships. The crowd included many of the school’s coaches and a number of students — as well as Anderson’s parents. Anderson was recognized during the event.
“That all really helped a lot,” Marella said.
Masi said the Eagles have a bond few could understand from fighting through an experience no team should ever have to endure.
“It has definitely made us closer,” Masi said. “We’re together so much, we’re like one big family. She’s definitely always on our minds and she does come up a lot. With time it’s getting better.”
Marrela said since Anderson would have been a junior this year, she expects the fallout for her cheerleaders to continue.
“It’s still very difficult to understand,” Marella said. “The team will never forget but we are going to try and keep going. It will be another year of emotion.”
When asked what Anderson would have thought of the Eagles’ routine at the FCIAC meet, Masi smiled.
“She would have been right there screaming for us,” Masi said. “That’s my team.”