Cara Phillips is the 2013 Fauquier Times Kettle Run Girls Athlete of the Year
Cara Phillips earned a spot on the James Madison competitive cheer team. --Fauquier Times Staff Photos/Randy Litzinger
Performing cartwheels and somersaults around her home got Cara Phillips into a gymnastics class by age 3.
Her mother put her there.
Perfecting handsprings and aerial stunts at Kettle Run High School got Cara Phillips onto a college competition cheer team by age 18.
James Madison University put her there.
In the process, Phillips helped transform the Kettle Run competition cheer team from a program struggling in infancy to the 2012 Evergreen District champion.
For that, and her ability to juggle seasons of competition cheer, sideline cheer, indoor track and outdoor track, Phillips is the 2013 Fauquier Times Kettle Run Girls Athlete of the Year.
“She’s one of the most talented [cheerleaders] that’s really come through since the school opened. All the girls knew that,” cheer coach Joann Glover said. “But it’s the way she carried herself as a leader – her head wasn’t too big. It was all about the team and what she could do to be better....And she passed her knowledge along.”
Phillips began building that knowledge base long before arriving at Kettle Run. After enrolling in Warrenton Gymnastics classes at age 3, she joined a gymnastics team at age 5.
“We were just trying to find little activities that she liked to do,” Phillips’ mother Angela said. “She was always very coordinated; very active. She could pump herself on a swing by 18 months and she was a riding bike without training wheels by 3.”
Phillips latched onto gymnastics immediately. She tried other sports at a young age, like soccer, but nothing else stuck. Her deep background in gymnastics went a long way in turning her into a tremendous tumbler by the time she became a Kettle Run a cheerleader.
“That definitely came in handy,” Phillips said. “You can tell if somebody’s been a gymnast by their form....That’s where I learned most of my skills.”
She placed second in a state competition as a fourth grader and participated in gymnastics through fifth grade. Then she left the sport behind and joined the Auburn Middle School cheerleading squad.
“By then she’d been doing [gymnastics] a lot and wanted to be more a part of her school” sports, Angela Phillips said.
Cara Phillips also ventured into softball and volleyball at Auburn, while continuing to hone her gymnastics skills by working on her own at local gyms.
Once at Kettle Run, Phillips dropped volleyball in order to continue with cheerleading during the fall, but she stuck with softball in the spring as a freshman. She excelled on the base paths and as a speedy center fielder.
“That was my main thing in softball – I was quick,” she said.
Accordingly, Phillips was also natural fit for track, so she joined the Kettle Run indoor team as a sophomore. That eventually led to the end of her softball career.
“I just really fell in love with [track] and decided to do it in the spring instead of softball,” Phillips said.
Meanwhile, indoor track season created a conflict with sideline cheerleading during the winter. Phillips often attended track practices from 3-5 p.m., then practiced with the cheer squad from 6-8 p.m.
“It definitely kept me busy,” she said. “I couldn’t decide which I wanted to do. I just loved both them and both of my coaches. I didn’t want to stop one.”
Phillips even put in extra work to ensure her spot on both teams. She often asked track coach Nikki Jenkins if she could stay after practice and continue to run, for example.
“She would actually train more than a lot of other athletes because she didn’t want cheerleading to be an excuse,” Jenkins said. “She balanced [the teams] very well, and we had great communication between coaches. It never hindered her training.”
Cara Phillips isn’t the first person in her family to be named a Fauquier Times Athlete of the Year.
Her 21-year-old brother, Zach Phillips, won the 2011 Kettle Run Boys award for his exploits in football and baseball.
“I look up to him,” Cara Phillips said. “To be able to say we both got this award is pretty cool. Now he can’t rub it in my face.”
Phillips’ brother also played a role in her decision to attend JMU. He is a rising junior at the Harrisonburg school.
“We’re pretty close” as siblings, Phillips said. “I’m excited to be going to the same school. I hope he’s excited, too.”
Phillips decided to attend James Madison after a successful tryout for its competition cheer squad in March. JMU coaches offered her a roster spot in April after she participated in that open tryout the previous month.
“We learned the fight song. We had to perform that,” Phillips said of the tryout. “We had to show them the tumbling skills – standing and running tumbling and jumps and toe-touches and stunting. They just kind of see how quickly you can pick up things and work with others.”
Phillips also talked with a handful of other college cheer squads, including Penn State University’s team. In fact, Penn State offered her a roster spot after she tried out, but she accepted JMU’s offer instead.
“She always thought she wanted to go really far away from home to a really big school,” Angela Phillips said. “I think she surprised herself in the end – found out what she really wanted.”
Two seasons ago, the JMU Dukes won the 2012 National Cheerleading Association National Championship in the Intermediate Coed Division. Phillips hopes that contributing to an annually successful squad will also serve as a stepping stone.
“I would love to go into pro cheerleading – cheer for an NFL team,” she said. “It’s really hard. I’ve heard of people having to try out four times for a team before they make it....But it would be cool. I’ll see where I am in four years.”
Over the past four years, Phillips served as a flyer for Kettle Run, capping her cheerleading career by helping the Cougars win the Evergreen District title in October. They avoided deductions in the championship meet and scored 205.5 points to edge runner-up Brentsville (202).
"Her skill level was a huge asset – her flying capably...and she was an elite tumbler,” Joann Glover said. “We had the highest tumbling pass you can really do at the VHSL level...because of her pass.”
Kettle Run finished last at the 2011 district meet, which highlighted its improvement in 2012. Plus, Brentsville had won the Evergreen competition each of the past three seasons.
“To take that from them...was really exciting,” Phillips said. “We worked really hard for it.”
Phillips also performed in the fall with the sideline cheerleading squad during Kettle Run’s football games. She got a front-row view as the Cougars posted an 11-3 record and advanced to the Group AA Division 3 state semifinals.
The Kettle Run football team also advanced to the 2011 D-3 state semifinals en route to a 13-1 record.
“Sideline was really exciting the last two years just because our football team was so good,” Phillips said. “The state semifinals was awesome being out there with them. I just really like cheering for my team.”
Phillips’ sideline cheerleading squad also performed at some volleyball games in the fall. Then, during winter, it cheered at basketball games and an occasional wrestling meet.
“I definitely like competition [cheer] more,” Phillips said. “But our coach, we take [sideline cheer] serious, and I think that’s a good thing. We look uniform and put-together....Not a lot of schools take it that seriously.”
It might seem requisite for cheerleaders to be perpetually positive and upbeat, but even they need an occasional pep talk.
Cara Phillips often provided that for the Kettle Run Cougars.
“If someone was down on themselves, she would go out of her way to make their day better,” Joann Glover said. “Her talent stands out first, but I think her personality” does, too.
“She’s just very modest....She’s very down-to-earth,” Glover said. “For a high schooler, it’s a very big deal. You don’t see that all the time.”
Nikki Jenkins saw the same qualities in Phillips during the indoor and outdoor track seasons.
“She could always put a smile on people’s faces no matter how they felt,” Jenkins said. “She would motivate in workouts and add the encouragement to push though. The practices aren’t the easiest.”
Phillips also made more tangible contributions to the Kettle Run track teams.
For example, she holds team record in the girls 100-meter dash (13.17 seconds as a junior) and 200 (27.38 as a sophomore).
As a senior, Phillips logged four top-seven finishes at the Region II indoor meet after placing third in the 55 dash (7.74) at the Evergreen District meet. She placed sixth in the region 1,600 relay (4:28.33) and took seventh in both the high jump (4 feet, 8 inches) and 55 (7.80).
Phillips’ indoor region highlight, however, came in the 400 relay. The team finished second (1:54.41) and qualified for the Group AA state meet.
“Her greatest strength was in the relays,” Jenkins said. But “she was a great asset because she can score points in multiple events.…Wherever we needed her, she would go.”
Unfortunately for Phillips, her 400 relay team got disqualified at state for passing the baton outside an exchange zone.
During the subsequent outdoor track season, Phillips placed sixth in the high jump (4-10) at the district meet and ninth in the 100 (14.30). At the region meet, she took seventh in the 400 relay (52.71).
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The Phillips File
Family: Father Michael is vice president of operations at Balfour Beatty construction. Mother Angela is a “stay-at-home mom. She’s very good at what she does,” says Cara. Brother Zachary, 21, is a junior at James Madison University.
Favorite places to visit: “I travel a lot. I just went to Mexico and it was the most beautiful place I’ve ever been – Cabo [San Lucas]. … I’ve been to Jamaica, Canada twice for snowboarding, California. I love snowboarding. I just learned how to do it two years ago. I fell in love with it.....And when I went to Mexico, I started surfing. I got up the first time I tried. I pick up doing stuff like that really quickly.”
Favorite athletes: American gymnast Nastia Liukin, who won the 2008 Olympic individual all-around championship. “She’s awesome – really good and really positive.”
Favorite food: “I’m not a picky eater at all. I’ll eat anything, but I really like Italian food.”
Favorite movie: “The Notebook.” “I really like cheesy romance movies.”
Favorite actor: Rachel McAdams. “She’s really good, and pretty, and a good role model.”
Favorite music: “I listen to every single type of music – country, hip hop, rap, alternative. I don’t think I could pick one.”
Routine music: “We’ll pick songs, but our coach will pick the main songs and somebody will put them together. She tries to give us as much input as possible.
Favorite class: Math. “It’s probably my best subject.”
Favorite TV show: “How I Met Your Mother.” “It’s just funny.”
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