LIVE OAK, Fla. — When establishing the foundation to the Suwannee High girls weightlifting program two years ago, coach Brittney Shearer envisioned winning a state championship: in five years.
Shearer is now hoping that timeline has been accelerated with the Bulldogs taking nine lifters — junior Aislinn Henry (101-pound division), sophomore Macy Bowers (101), sophomore Matti Marsee (110), freshman Sophia Baldwin (119), freshman Amaya Johnson (129), sophomore Tyra Kalandyk (139), junior Carson Frier (154), junior McKay Graham (169) and senior Shelby Blackmon (183) — to Arnold High in Panama City Beach for Friday’s Class 1A state meet.
“We wanted to be state champs in five years,” Shearer said, adding she believes it’s a realistic goal for this year’s team. “I think we have a really solid chance to be top 3 this year.
“Top 3 I’ll be ecstatic. Top 5, I’ll be happy.”
The Bulldogs aren’t shy about sharing that trophy-lifting goal either.
And for good reason. SHS went undefeated in the regular season before winning a district and regional title for the second straight year, including qualifying its entire team for the regional meet. Suwannee also placed sixth at the two big invitational meets it participated in, including its own Power of Christmas Invitational.
“The goal is to win,” Marsee said. “The goal is to win but I think we’ll all have fun and as long as we have fun and good attitudes, I think it will be worth it.”
Kalandyk added: “As a team, state champs. Individually, I hope to place first. I’m looking at second right now, but I’m going for a state title.”
So what has powered the rise of the Bulldogs? A family feel and an encouraging culture, according to the team.
“I think the key is all of us encouraging each other,” Blackmon said. “We’ll be in the weight room and somebody will hit a big lift and everybody will be like, ‘Yeah!’ We’re all just cheering that person on. It gives you a lift, boosts your confidence up, having everyone encouraging you.”
Henry said one of her favorite moments of the season was provided by Blackmon two weeks ago at the district meet.
“I had a really, really big meet and that was exciting for me but then I look over and see Shelby, who is one of my best friends, get one of the best meets of her life, that was really cool to see that,” Henry said. “That definitely made me feel good.”
Those feel-good moments can also provide a lift in crucial situations.
“Oh my gosh, it pushes me so much,” said Kalandyk, who enters the state meet with the second-highest total in her class at 320 pounds. “Some days will be so horrible but on the next platform, somebody is doing amazing and it just brightens your day, it really does.”
Shearer said those moments watching her team bond has been a joy to experience, especially since it is rooted in a desire to see Suwannee — as a whole — do its best. She added that a new rule this year limited teams to just two lifters per weight class, which could have caused friction when there were some weights where four Bulldogs were potentially good enough to score points.
“Two of the girls have competed all season, all season, all season,” she said. “And they cheer each other on every single day. They are friends. They are never like, ‘I want her to do bad so I can do better.’ It’s been, ‘I want us both to do our best and whoever gets that spot at the end of the day has earned it.’
“We have preached over and over and over that it’s not about you this season. It’s about us and the team. I think we’ve got that in their minds.”
That encouragement will continue this weekend with Henry, Marsee and Kalandyk leading the way. Those three qualified for state a year ago and will be counted on for leadership in the crazed, hectic environment.
“State is a scary thing for people who have never been,” Shearer said. “They know what to expect and can talk to their teammates about it. They’ve been able to encourage and talk them through that.
“It’s been more of a family thing. ‘We’ve got this. We can win this.’”
Added Henry, who enters state with the fifth-best lift in the class: “Going last year has helped prepare me a lot for this year, just the experience. I also think it will help me be able to help Macy, help her focus on me and help her calm down and not make it so stressful for her.”
Marsee is expecting it to help her, too. Entering the tournament a year ago as the top lifter in her class, she left with a fourth-place showing.
Again the top lifter entering state with a best total of 290 pounds, she is hoping for a better result.
“I had the worst day all year at state,” she said of last year’s meet. “So I think that was a very humbling experience. Through tennis last year and weightlifting, it has really made me like, ‘OK, I’m not the best.’ It’s humbled me. State last year was a big eye opener and I think it’s going to help a lot going into state.”