By LARRY VAUGHT
It’s easy for Maria Montgomery to explain how much she believes Kentucky basketball fans enjoy watching the Firecrackers, a performance jump rope team of talented fourth to eighth graders from Kings School District in Ohio, perform at Rupp Arena like they will again Saturday at halftime of the Kentucky-Auburn game.
“Oh they love it! It’s definitely one of the most entertaining performances they have in Rupp for games all year,” said Montgomery. “I can tell the crowd loves it because people stay in their seats and everyone’s faces are mesmerized.”
Montgomery and former UK basketball player Ravi Moss are the on-court hosts/personalities for all UK home basketball games. She’s seen the Firecrackers work their magic and has even tried at her luck at a few of their tricks/stunts during their warmup drills.
The Firecrackers performed at the Army-Navy basketball game in Annapolis, Md., last weekend and have already been at Belmont, Louisville, Indiana, Xavier, Penn State, Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky this year. They’ve also performed for the Cleveland Cavaliers and will be at a Chicago Bulls game in March.
The Firecrackers made their SEC Tournament debut in St. Louis last year. They will be back at the SEC tourney in Nashville in March for a performance during the semifinals.
“The SEC Tournament was a great time. Kentucky fans were great at the FanFest,” Julie Lewis, who has a daughter on the team and also helps coach Lynn Kelley at practice, said.
They are just as great when the Firecrackers perform in Rupp Arena.
“They look forward to coming to Kentucky every year,” Lewis said. “It’s their favorite place to perform. The eighth-grade girls always tear up when this show is over because they know they won’t perform again in Rupp Arena. A lot of us parents don’t travel to this game because UK always sends a bus to get them. That might be another reason why they all like coming to Kentucky so much … they are on their own.”
The Firecrackers have 22 performers, including one boy. Only three are newcomers who will be making their Rupp Arena debut.
“I love watching how incredibly easy they make performing the tumbling, stunts, and more all while jumping rope,” Montgomery, a former Miss Kentucky, said. “I used to tumble for cheerleading when younger and it’s not easy … much less to do it without stepping on the rope. It completely blows my mind.
“But even more, I love how they are like a family. Girls and boys from a wide range of ages all come together to create a team and they all work together so well.”
Lewis said the team has added “new tricks” to make sure even those who have seen them perform will get something new. That includes tweaking the “rump jump” that UK fans like so much.
“We’ve added a twist where two girls sit beside each other and do it at the same time,” Lewis said.
Montgomery marvels at the poise the Firecrackers all have performing the high intensity routines.
“They don’t look winded at all! They make it look effortless. From their posture to their facial expressions . . . they really maintain it well,” Montgomery said. “Besides their actual physical performance, they don’t even seem nervous whenever I have spoken with them before performing or during their performance.
“That’s very impressive considering how young they are when 22,000 plus fans are in Rupp. A lot of adults couldn’t do what they do, ad they do it with ease. I think performing on the Firecrackers is really good for their future, self confidence, and for learning to work as a team.”
It’s also really a lot of fun to watch and will be again Saturday.