By David Fong
TROY — Maggie Welker has been a member of the Troy Pop Rocks for so long that she barely remembers life before joining the jump rope team — and she’s having a hard time imaging what life will be like after her Pop Rocks career comes to an end in a few short weeks.
“I’ve thought about that — I really don’t know what it’s going to be like,” said Welker, who initially joined the Pop Rocks team when it was still just an after-school activity at Heywood Elementary School. “I don’t really know what life as a regular teenager will be like without it. It’s been such an incredible experience. I wouldn’t trade this for anything in the world. I feel like this has been my whole life.”
Which, for all intents and purposes, it has been for the past six years. Welker — the senior member of the team — joined the team and coach Josh Oakes, a physical education teacher at Heywood and Hook elementary schools, six years ago in the second grade.
Like Welker, the team has sprouted up since then. What began with a handful of jumpers — Welker is the only remaining jumper from that inaugural squad — has grown into a full roster of 29. And what started with one performance at the end of the year for friends and family has grown into around 20 performances at the halftimes of high school and college basketball games across the Midwest.
This season alone, the Troy Pop Rocks will perform in four different states and in front of nearly a half-dozen top 25 college basketball teams. This past weekend, the Pop Rocks performed in front of more than 10,000 fans at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis as Butler University took on No. 5 Xavier University.
The season will end next month when the team performs at the Ohio High School Athletic Association boys state championships. It will also mark the end of the Pop Rocks careers for five eighth graders — Welker, Sarah Pascale, Jaiden Hunt, Sami Francis and Riley Becker — who will comprise the third, and biggest, graduating class in the team’s short but storied history.
All said they will have voids to fill next year without the team.
“I’m definitely going to miss this,” said Hunt, who joined the team in sixth grade. “I don’t really have any other activities that I do — I’d rather be doing this. I love to jump rope. I do it all the time, even when we aren’t practicing. I jump rope to relieve stress. This has been such a great experience.”
For Becker, who joined the team in the fourth grade, being a member of the team has helped her grow not only as an athlete and a jumper, but as a person.
“It’s definitely taught me to be more of a social leader and to interact with people I’ve never met,” she said. “I used to be extremely shy. I still remember my first performance — I was literally shaking until we got out there. But once you start performing, that goes away. It’s weird knowing this is coming to an end. I haven’t thought about what I want to do after the Pop Rocks.”
Francis, who joined the team in the sixth grade, said she feels the end of her career will be the culmination of three years of intense work. Before the season starts, the team practices up to nine hours per week.
“I was cheerleading since I was a wee little lassie — and we didn’t practice half as much as we do for the Pop Rocks,” she said. “It’s a lot of hard work, but it was worth it. I like performing with my friends. That’s what I’m going to miss the most when I hang up my rope for good in a few weeks.”
Like the other four graduating eighth graders, Pascale — who joined the team in the fifth grade — said she’s going to miss the close personal bonds she formed with her teammates more than anything else.
“It’s kind of sad,” she said. “I like all the traveling and performing, but being with the team is what I’m going to miss the most. We have such a close bond — we are probably more like sisters than we are teammates. We don’t always agree on everything, but you end up even closer because of it.”
Contact David Fong at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @thefong