Cheerleaders ‘lift’ homecoming spirits

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Many cheerleaders go by the motto, “Athletes lift weights, but cheerleaders lift athletes.”

The Madisonville High School cheerleaders could probably add a few more groups to that list if they wanted to.

The most spirited members of the Mustang community had extra special responsibilities during Homecoming week. In addition to their normal duties, the squad presided over a districtwide pep rally Friday afternoon and played a key role at Wednesday’s communitywide pep rally, parade and carnival.

Cheerleaders “lift” athletes both literally and figuratively on Friday nights. But they also lift the spirit of their friends and the community in every way possible.

They’ll be “lifting up” the fight against cancer all this month with a t-shirt fundraiser benefitting the Susan B. Komen Foundation. Just two weeks ago, they lifted up what seemed like hundreds of future cheerleaders by leading them in routines at halftime of the football game on Sept. 14.

One of this year’s co-captains, Ashley Smith, was herself lifted up by the senior cheerleaders when she was in her fifth-grade cheer camp.

That cycle is now repeating itself as she and her squad continue to provide spirit and support for everyone in Mustang Country.

“I’ve been doing cheer since pre-K when I went to the mini-camp,” Smith said. “In fifth grade, it was my last year and I remember the varsity cheerleaders put me in an ‘extension’ and it was the most awesome experience ever. That’s when I knew I wanted to do this. I really liked being in front of a crowd and getting people pumped up. I’ve always had school spirit with my dad being a coach, and I like to help get everyone into that school spirit. We’re hoping that we can get the crowd pumped up to the support the Mustangs, even if we’re losing. What we’re really trying to do is bring everyone together as a community.”

Madisonville High School’s gymnasium was a noisy place around 7 a.m. on the Friday morning before Homecoming. The junior high and high school cheerleaders had been there since 6:30, practicing routines for that afternoon’s districtwide pep rally and that evening’s football game against Crockett.

The game ended around 10:30 p.m. that evening, so if you’re keeping score at home, that’s a 16-hour day. That day included two performances – the pep rally and the game – as well as the early-morning practice and a full day of school.

“Homecoming is really major,” cheer sponsor Cynthia Walker said. “We are trying to involve as many people as possible in all these different activities. The parade and carnival invite in everyone from the community, and in the districtwide pep rally we involve all the campuses. It’s a crazy time, but we all enjoy it and know how much involvement we’ve had and just how much fun the community has.”

What anyone who attended Friday’s districtwide pep rally saw really started back in January. That was when Walker started planning for tryouts, looking at uniforms, holding parent meetings, and all the while still supporting basketball and the other spring sports.

The cheerleaders themselves get to work over the summertime at camps, which is where the identity of the squad begins to take shape. What you see on Friday nights is the culmination of a process that involves a lot of planning, teamwork, and physical conditioning that comes into play in many areas you might not realize.

“During camp we weed out some of the easier cheers that we started with in junior high and we build from past camps and cheers that we have done in the past,” Walker said. “At our summers camps we add new material. Some of them they did in junior high, so they’ve kind of grown with their cheers. As far as dance, the only time we really do our summer camp dance is at the districtwide pep rally. We do have a thing that we do with the band that is called the Third Quarter party. The band has drum cadences they play and we have made up different routines to go along with the band’s drum cadence. That gives us a different type of spirit in the third quarter and the band is more involved.”

Cheerleaders have positions just like any other athletes. Two are termed “bases” and “flyers.” The flyer is the cheerleader lifted up over her teammates’ heads to lead cheers, while the base is one of the several cheerleaders holding her up. Both require specific strength and conditioning.

“Most people don’t realize how difficult it is physically,” Smith said. “We go up to the school four days a week early and run before practices because we do need to lift other cheerleaders. We decide that in the summer at cheer camp. It all depends on height and strength for who is lifting the flyers. It would seem that you depend on their weight (in selecting flyers) but in reality you have to look at how strong their core is and whether they can support their own weight.”

The physical challenges of cheerleading are difficult enough, not withstanding the bravery it takes to be tossed into the air or elevated six feet off the ground. But the standard a cheerleader must hold oneself to is about as high as exists in athletics.

Hundreds of young girls are watching every move cheerleaders make on Friday nights. The identity that Walker instills in her squad has a lot to do with the example they set, and a trickle-down effect to younger girls helps establish them as not only spirit leaders, but leaders in spirit.

“We’re spirit leaders, we’re here to get the crowd involved,” Walker said. “But they see the importance of higher standards when they come during the summertime and we hold camp. We have close to 75-80 little girls from age 4 up to fifth grade that are just mesmerized by every move they make. They want to copy and be exactly like they are. They see that when they’re standing at the fence Friday night watching what they do. I impress upon them that what they do, these little girls look and watch. Their actions and words need to be that of higher standards than others because you have little girls that want to be just like you. We set being Christian role models as our standard and hold that very high. Our chaplain is Sarah Bankhead and when we have squabbles we try to sit down and discuss and realize that what we are showing to the public is not very Christ-like. That is our big goal. We want people to see a Christ-like example in our cheer.”

Staying with that theme is the cheer squad’s continuing t-shirt drive to raise money for Susan B. Komen for the Cure. Anyone interested in purchasing a t-shirt to support the cause may do so by Oct. 10 by contacting Walker, the school, or any cheerleader. The drive will culminate in the “pink out” at the Oct. 26 game.

It’s just another small way to “lift” someone up.

But hey, that’s what cheerleaders do.

“They handle all,” Walker said. “I’m really just here for guidance and to make suggestions. They’re not just cheerleaders, they’re campus leaders. And they make me so proud.”

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