BUCKHANNON — Proud parents packed into the Culpepper Auditorium of the Virginia Thomas Law Center for the Performing Arts Sunday afternoon.
They sat and waited patiently, anxious smiles of anticipation stretched across their faces as they waited for their children to prance out on stage.
It was time for the junior royalty pageant, one of many favorite events of the 76th annual West Virginia Strawberry Festival, the theme of which is “Mountain Memories.” Lasting from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., this year’s pageant showcased fewer participants than in years past, with just 21 children vying for the titles of prince, princess, page and of course, junior royalty king and queen.
Hosted by Dominique Collins — the 2016 W.Va. Strawberry Festival Queen and 2014 Strawberry Festival Teen Queen — the junior royalty pageant kicked off with a casual dress category and a then moved on to the party-wear part of the afternoon.
When all was said and done, the judges selected Ava Warner, 12, of St. Albans, as the 2017 junior royalty queen. Following the conclusion of the pageant, Ava said she was pleasantly surprised and excited to be picked from a field of four contestants, which also included Averie Devin Goshert, 12, of Philippi; Stephanie Santilli, 13, of Philippi; and Delaney Renee Duffy, 13, of Winfield.
“There were some really good people in my group, and I was really excited to win,” Ava said.
When asked how she prepared for this year’s pageant, Ava said she indulged in the festival’s favorite fruit.
“Honestly, by eating a lot of strawberries,” she said. “I also practiced not swinging my arms as much and just making sure I was prepared. I’m really excited for the festival.” In addition to winning the junior royalty queen title, Ava was also named the most photogenic overall as well.
The lone contestant in the junior royalty king category was 12-year-old Owen Ross Caynor, who donned a sparkly red tuxedo he and his family had special-ordered from Amazon. A native of Buckhannon, Owen won the king title as well as the most photogenic title in his age group. He said he wanted to participate in this year’s pageant because it’s become something of a tradition.
“I’ve done it ever since I was a baby, and I wanted to try and win king,” Owen said. He also added that he aspires to be king and reign over the entire festival one day when he grows up.
So, how has Owen prepared?
The same, simple way Ava did — by consuming lots of strawberries.
Other winners include: Makenzie Blair Frye, 5, of Morgantown, princess in the 4 to 5-year-old girls category; Brynn DaNae Triplett, 4, of Buckhannon, first maid in the 4 to 5-year-old girls category and winner of the Strawberry Spirit Award; Ella Victoria Whitehair, 5, of Buckhannon, winner of the most photogenic award in her age category; Gunner Tomey, 7, of Buckhannon, prince in the 6 to 7-year-old boys category; Jonathan Ray Howes, 6, of French Creek, first page in the 6 to 7-year-old boys category and winner of the most photogenic award in his age category; RaeAnna Hyre, 7, of Buckhannon, princess in the 6 to 7-year-old girls category and most photogenic in her age group; Katelyn Elizabeth Howes, 9, of French Creek, princess in the 8 to 9-year-old girls category and most photogenic in her age category; Samyah India Blake, 10, of Mount Hope, princess in the 10 to 11-year-old girls category; Dene’e Brook Collins, 11, of Normantown, first maid in the 10 to 11-year-old girls category; and LoRena Diaz, 10, of Buckhannon, most photogenic in her age group.
Kelly White, director of this year’s junior royalty pageant, said she thought the event proceeded smoothly.
“Overall, I think it was very successful,” White said after the pageant wrapped up Sunday. “I think this building is very accommodating, and I just like working with kids.”
White’s favorite part of the festival?
“The parades,” she said. “Parades are what make festivals.”
This year’s festival is slated for May 13-21. Visit www.wvstrawberryfestival.com for more details.