MITCHELL – Prior to the Mitchell High School Stingerz’s trip to this year’s state championship, 14-year head coach Michelle Zehr announced her intention to step away from her role following this season.
Zehr said she broke the news to her team a few weeks before their trip to compete at regionals, a declaration that took the team by surprise.
“I know it was a bit of a shock but I wanted to be able to let them know before the season ended so they weren’t all feeling like they were just dumped. But one of my girls was like, ‘this just feels like a bad breakup,” said Zehr.
Knowing it was her last year at the helm, Zehr and the Stingerz embarked on a journey for one more championship together, which culminated in the team taking home the first place state title in the Jazz category on March 11.
The state championship win was the climax to the story of this season, which had been a rather difficult one to that point, according to Zehr.
“It was a really tough season. I’ve spoken to other coaches and it’s kind of been like a mentally draining season for a lot of sports but especially for us we had a lot of veteran dancers with some injuries and then just some random illnesses that honestly couldn’t have been predicted. So it kind of felt all year like we were fighting an uphill battle,” Zehr explained.
Part of the struggle Zehr described this season came from inconsistent lineups, stemming from the previously mentioned illnesses and injuries, leading to the team struggling to find their rhythm for much of the year.
For a team with a history of success at the event, the journey to this final state championship for Zehr made this victory stand out among the crowd.
“Usually there are some years that we have like a little bit of a fall slump and then things kind of hit their stride. And, you know, this is a strong program and we always do really well at invitationals but this year, it was just kind of a constant struggle, We didn’t actually get to floor any of our routines without any holes. So like, what that means is we had missing people in our routines all the way up until state finals. So, that was really difficult,” Zehr said. “To finally be able to come away with a state championship, that was really rewarding for that reason. I we kind of doubted it there for a second but we pulled it off somehow.”
During Zehr’s time as coach, the Stingerz had become a powerhouse, taking first place at the state championship in the jazz category every year since 2015.
Perhaps their most successful season was the 2021-22 season, where they took home the state championship in all three categories, jazz, kick and pom, to sweep the event. The team also traveled to Orlando, Florida to compete in that season’s national championship, where they finished second in the kick and pom categories.
“It’s something that I’m really proud of,” Zehr said, speaking about the program’s continued success. “When I first started coaching, we were not winning at all, we were actually the very, very last place team by many, many points and a lot of that changed. The classing system came around in, I believe, 2015. It was the first year that they switched to Single A, Double A, Triple A, and that really helped. But also, I added some people to my coaching staff that were really knowledgeable and really cared for the kids and since then, we’ve built this kind of empire.”
After over a decade leading the Stingerz, Zehr felt her time had come to step down from her position.
She said she made the decision to allow herself to have more free time to spend with her family.
“I’ve decided to step away, just to give my family more of my time,” she said.
Zehr, who is also a mother, began to feel as if her role as coach was making it difficult for her to spend as much time with her children and husband as she would’ve liked. Similarly, she felt she wasn’t able to dedicate as much of her time to coaching the team as had been able to previously
“Dr. Comer, our superintendent, put it the best way. It’s this big, beautiful monster that just requires a lot of time and I couldn’t dedicate the time that I was used to dedicating to it this season,” she said. “My oldest son is six. He’s getting into sports. I missed almost every single one of his basketball games this year because the winter sports season is when our dance competitions are, so I just kind of had to really consider what is best for my family. I’ve got a younger son who just turned two. My husband also, he’s given a lot of time and effort and money to this program. So, it was just kind of a deciding factor for me to be able to spend more time with my family.”
She said this decision was one she had contemplated for a few years, but previously had found herself unsure of what she should ultimately do. This year, however, she said she felt more sure of the decision to resign from her position earlier on and that opinion had not flipped back-and-forth, as she said it had in other years.
“I felt like it was time,” said Zehr. “This was the year that I just really felt like it was the right decision all the way through. Yes, it was a difficult decision but I felt at peace with it.”
Even though she won’t be the one in charge going forward, Zehr said she feels the program has plenty of success ahead in their future, though that’s not always necessarily been the priority.
Zehr said she had always seen the team’s championships as an added bonus, behind teaching the students life lessons and skills through competitive dance.
As long as that remains the case, Zehr said she feels the program can be able to continue to add trophies to their case in her absence.
“My main motto has always been; dance is just the icing on the cake. This thing teaches the girls so much more than dance. It’s life skills, it’s things that they’re going to take with them for the rest of their life and I think as long as the next coach, whoever that may be, keeps that in the forefront. I think it’s gonna continue to do well. The parents have always been really supportive of that kind of philosophy and understanding that it is a team sport. Their wins are something that I want the girls to look back on and be proud of, but also all of the memories that they made. It’s definitely something that I think has a strong foundation to continue to improve as long as that’s remembered,” she said.
As far as the competition results are concerned, Zehr said that she thinks the love shown to the dancers by herself, as well as Mitchell Junior High dance coach Erica Slaughter and fellow Stingerz coach Brittany Crosby motived them to put their best foot forward each day
“We just love the heck out of those girls. And because of that reason, I think that they were willing to go to the ends of the world for us, honestly. They worked really, really hard. They believed in us, they felt respected and heard and valued. And I don’t really think that a program can really thrive until kids feel that, otherwise it’s just kind of like a recreational hobby,” she said.
Finally, Zehr said the program wouldn’t have been able to reach the heights that it has thus far without the support of the community.
Dance can be an expensive sport to participate in, according to Zehr. Those high costs could serve as a deterrent for parents that are considering allowing their student to participate, but she anticipates around 75% of their season costs are covered by donations, creating more opportunities for dancers in the district, such as the 2020 trip to Orlando for nationals.
“The monetary support from the community has been astronomical,” she said.
Outside of supporting the team financially, Zehr said she is thankful for community members supporting the program in other ways, such as attending events to cheer them on and watch them perform.
“It really has meant the absolute world to me, when people come and they watch the girls perform or they want to donate money. It has just been the best,” she added.
Zehr’s closing words echoed her earlier sentiments, saying that she believes the program will continue to succeed following her departure as long as the incoming coaches continue to prioritize the future of the dancers and what dance can do for them beyond bringing home trophies.
“I just want to let the community know and let the dance families know that I think the program has a really solid foundation and as long as it remembers the pillars that we’ve always worked on, which is respect, hard work and love. As long as those things are kept in the forefront, I think this program is going to continue to thrive. And, just remember that it gives these kids so much more than dance,” said Zehr.