This fall, Monroe County will once again be well represented inside Neyland Stadium with two girls on the University of Tennessee’s majorette line being products of Sequoyah High School.
Kelsey Watson, 18, a freshman at the University of Tennessee (UT), and Madison Pennington, 20, a sophomore, are two of only 10 girls to make UT’s majorette line for next year.
Pennington was head majorette at Sequoyah for three years and Watson has served on the school’s majorette line for four years, becoming a feature twirler her senior year. In addition to being a majorette, Watson also played clarinet in the band for five years while twirling.
“We are very fortunate to have the support of our entire hometown,” said Pennington. “It is a great accomplishment that two of the 10 UT Majorettes are from Monroe County. I think that speaks a lot about the twirling program that many have worked hard to develop, as well as the support.”
“They’ve always told us that we could go places. Having a school that backs you and supports you in everything you do encourages you to go and chase your dreams,” added Watson.
Pennington and Watson have been twirling together since the fourth grade thanks to the influence of Pennington’s older sister, Caroline Pennington Gillem. Gillem, 29, began twirling in sixth grade when her mother, Bobbie Pennington, also a former majorette, bought her a baton. She took lessons from former Sequoyah and East Tennessee State University Majorette Sarah Newman and went on to twirl for Sequoyah High School from 1998-2004, serving as head majorette for four years, before becoming a UT Majorette from 2004-2006.
Looking to find a way to get involved with twirling again after college, she began a twirling program for young girls in Monroe County in 2006. With the help of her stepmother, Kim Pennington, Gillem assembled the Star Twirlers, a group of third through fifth graders which included both Pennington and Watson.
From there, the group began performing in talent shows, parades, competitions and school functions. When the girls entered middle school, Gillem continued to coach them, starting the Madisonville Middle School Twirling Team.
Gillem followed her team into high school where four of the original girls graduated as Sequoyah majorettes. She is currently the majorette coach of Sequoyah High School.
‘An indescribable feeling’
As members of the UT Majorettes, Pennington and Watson perform with the Pride of the Southland Band. Founded in 1869, the Pride of the Southland Band is recognized as one of the most prestigious college marching bands in the United States.
Tryouts for the UT Majorette line were Saturday, March 28, and even though both girls were members of the line last year, tryouts are required each year.
“I went into each practice knowing that they were all really important,” said Watson. “I needed to stay focused the whole time. You can never be too prepared!”
Pennington said she felt more prepared this year than for the previous tryouts.
“As always, the weeks prior to tryouts are full of long practices and restless nights,” she added.
Each person auditioning had to perform their own routine, otherwise known as a “solo,” for the judges and learn one of the UT Majorettes’ routines.
“Our head majorette makes up a 64-count routine that we must learn at tryouts and then perform for the judges after we have a few minutes to practice it,” Watson explained.
At the end of a long day of tryouts, both girls’ were announced as members of next year’s line.
“It was just as amazing as last year, if not more,” said Watson. “To be returning for a second year is a huge blessing and I am so excited that I get to continue doing what I love.”
“It is such a privilege to wear those orange sequins on game days and knowing that I will have the opportunity to be out there on the field with the Pride again is a great feeling,” she said.
For Watson, the Salute to the Hill is the most exciting part of performing on Rocky Top.
“We march down to Neyland doing a parade routine and then when the band splits, it’s go time!” she said. “It’s the most exhilarating part of game day.”
And then, the majorettes get to participate in the infamous “T.”
“It’s an indescribable feeling being a part of the opening of the ‘T’ when the team runs onto the field,” said Pennington.
Both girls say they have made friendships that will “last a lifetime” through twirling at UT.
“I’m looking forward to the new memories that are to be made with a new line and helping the freshmen get accustomed to the glamorous life of a UT Majorette,” said Watson.
If the past is any indicator, Sequoyah High School’s tradition of being represented on the UT Majorette line is far from over.
“There is a lot of talent in our hometown and I fully expect to see many more UT Majorettes from Madisonville in the future,” said Pennington. “Our town has been known for its twirling tradition and I know it will continue to keep that reputation in the years to come.”
“No dream is too big,” added Watson. “Work hard, stay dedicated to your dreams and have faith in God. With that, you can achieve anything!”
Watson is the daughter of Tina and Jerry Watson. She has one sibling, Blake Watson. She is currently studying to become a physical therapist.
Pennington is the daughter of Pat and Kim Pennington of Madisonville. Her siblings are Gillem, Marcy Pennington, Andy Pennington, Brad Cooper and Andy Cooper. She is studying audiology and speech pathology at the University of Tennessee.