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Champions of cheer: Total team effort delivers with first state title, surprise national finals appearance
It happens in moments. Cheerleaders hit the floor between quarters in a varsity basketball game, unroll a mat. Four form a platform with their arms, and Natalie Holmes, a Mount Si junior, is catapulted into the air. She twists in the air, then lands in the arms of the four girls below. In a few seconds, they’ve rolled up the mat. Their stunt is done, and the game continues.
This performance took many hours to perfect. It may not be the main event of the night. But these cheerleaders are part of a squad that has gone farther than any Wildcat team this year.
Cheer's Red Squad is the only Mount Si team to bring home a state championship this year. They are ranked number six nationally, following a recent, striking performance in Florida.
On Tuesday, Jan. 26, Red took first in the medium combined 2A-3A-4A division at the Alaska Airlines Arena at the Washington State Cheerleading Championships at Hec Edmundson Pavilion on the University of Washington campus.
At state, "We hit perfectly!" said junior Kirstie Clark.
"All of us work together. We all knew we had to be on our A game," says Clark. "We know, once we're out there, to use the best techniques that coaches give us."
"This was my senior year, and I really wanted to get first," said Katy Black, a team captain.
The whole team waited through the nerve-wracking moments as the announcements were made. Finally, triumphantly, they got to Mount Si.
Mount Si has gone to state every year since 2008. This was the team's first state title, which feels awesome to coach Jessii Stevens.
At these events, Mount Si cheerleaders don't worry about what the competition is up to. They focus on what they need to do to succeed.
Teammates pep-talk each other throughout these meets, calling out phrases like "You've got this," to help each other.
"We've been practicing a lot more, and practices have been more intense," Black explained of the team's edge. "It's definitely a group effort to get there."
On Sunday, February 10, the same exhibition team placed sixth of 29 teams at the National High School Cheerleading Championships in Orlando, Fla.
Attending nationals last year was a learning experience for Stevens. Mount Si went as a tumbling team, but had a hard time competing with the national level cheer teams, who are extremely deep with tumbling skills. This year, the team entered the Medium Varsity Non-Tumbling Division at Nationals.
"We have the stunting ability to compete with the best in the nation, but our tumbling just isn’t there yet," Stevens told the Record. "However, our tumbling ability and depth is very competitive within Washington. So, our state championship was won in the Medium Varsity (tumbling) Division, but we took out our tumbling for nationals so that we would be competitive. This strategy worked out well for us."
Mount Si stumbled in the semi-final round, and the team were not announced as finalists. Still set on having a good time at nationals, they were in line for the Tower of Terror at Disney World when Stevens got the call: The team was being advanced to finals;
"The girls went ballistic!" Stevens told the Record. "They were crying, hugging, laughing."
She's not sure what prompted the advance, but speculates that officials saw how her team's skills were solid in warm-ups, and that mistakes in the semi's were down to nerves.
"We definitely proved that we were worthy of making finals," says Stevens.
Success has definitely been a team effort.
"Each girl literally and figuratively supports one another –without each other, they would fail," the coach says. "Cheer is the ultimate team effort sport."
Success comes from the girls' mentality, says Stevens.
Talk to cheerleaders, and you soon realize that they demand due respect as athletes.
"People don't really know how much we do, physically," Black said. "Most people think we come in here and practice cheers. That's really one of the last things we do. We're mostly stunting and tumbling."
"People don't think that cheer's a sport," said Clark. "Then you see us compete. We show them all wrong."
Clark, a base, joins with three other girls to hurl flyers like Holmes skyward.
This is her third year at Mount Si. She's been doing cheer since fifth grade, and while she's experienced hard moments and hard practices, she's never left.
"It's what I live to do," Clark said. "I love being with the team. I know I'll always have these girls there for me if I need anything."
She also loves the intense workout, and the feeling she gets from supporting her school.
"I'm not going to forget that it's my first year being on nationals," said Holmes. This is only her second year on cheer; she was encouraged to try out by and friend.
"Sometimes, when I try new things, it's a little scary at first," she said. "It's not anymore."
"These girls are tough, focused and serious athletes," says Stevens. "They go through the same injuries, mental blocks, good practices, bad practices, conditioning and pains as every other athlete at Mount Si and they keep pushing one another," she said. "Every year, the momentum builds and makes the next year’s team that much stronger."
Veteran assistant coach Travis Anderson has made a huge difference for the team's stunting program.
Experienced with cheer at the University of Tennessee and at the University of Washington, Anderson has pushed the Wildcats to be better athletes. Stevens said she's getting better about realizing what judges want and what scores well in competition.
For now, Mount Si's Wildcats work on their assembly routines and the halftime show for the Hoops of Hope event at Cascade View Elementary School, on March 23.
The Wildcats lost a number of talented seniors, and a strong sophomore due to a move. But that opens up spots for underclassmen and newcomers to step up.
Tryouts are tentatively scheduled for mid-to-late April.
Learn more about Mount Si cheer at http://mountsicheer.weebly.com/