PLANT CITY – The trip was often harrowing, but four Plant City High School cosmetology students put aside worries about the weather to excel at a state competition.
A team of Ashley Bishop, Molly Copeland and Jana Watkins took first place in the community service category for the second year in a row at the Skills USA Florida contest. Classmate Courtney Carter placed third in men’s haircutting.
The competition was in Pensacola, which was hit with tornadoes and record flooding the same time that cosmetology teacher Laurel Ritenbaugh and her students arrived on April 26.
Ritenbaugh said the group reached their destination just ahead of a flash flood.
“Ten minutes after we pulled into the hotel parking lot, cars were floating in the street,” she said.
Watkins’ mom, Caron, who was chaperone for the group, was following a distance behind in a separate car and high water forced her to spend more than a day in a RaceTrac gas station parking lot.
The entire group ended up spending an extra day beyond their planned April 30 departure to make sure Panhandle roads were safe.
The classmates weathered the storm, in more ways than one, and pulled together for the competition.
Bishop, Copeland and Watkins placed first for a presentation on the Plant City High cosmetology department’s free services to mild- to severely-disabled classmates. Cosmetology students welcome classmates with special needs into the school’s salon for pampering that includes haircuts and manicures.
Copeland said she and the others felt they had a shot at winning another title as their 10-minute presentation went without a hitch.
Watkins said the team was elated when the judges announced their decision. They came back to Plant City proudly displaying the medals they earned.
“It was such an honor to win two times in a row,” Watkins said.
Ritenbaugh’s students have a long track record of excelling at state competition; they’ve won in at least one category in 11 out of the last 12 years.
Bishop, Copeland and Watkins said their victory was bittersweet because they are all 17-year-old seniors who will graduate and never get to compete together again at the competition, known as the Skills Olympics.
Bishop plans to enroll in Florida Gulf Coast University with her eye set on a law degree so she can work as a guardian for children; Copeland plans to attend the same school and study business management and communications and perhaps work in public relations; and Watkins plans to attend Hillsborough Community College and then the University of Georgia to study business management so she can open her own salon, specializing in geriatrics and customers with special needs.
All the students in the Raiders cosmetology department provide grooming to special needs students. Ritenbaugh selected the trio to represent the program at state because they are talented, articulate and comfortable in front of crowds.
Ritenbaugh called them the “dream team,” because they were so easy to work with.
“It’s going to be tough to let them go. There will be a lot of tears at graduation,” she said.
Carter, an 18-year-old senior, was competing at the state level for the first time. She won at regional competition in men’s haircutting and was encouraged by Ritenbaugh to go to the next level.
She said the competition was stressful as she had to demonstrate two different men’s hairstyles in front of an audience. Her work was photographed and filmed as well.
“It was very nerve-racking. I was so happy to win third place,” she said.
Carter plans to pursue a business degree at HCC and open her own salon.
All four students credit Ritenbaugh with their success.
“She’s always pushing you to do your best,” Carter said. “She’s always very supportive and she’s always there for you.”