Road to Anaheim

Pleasanton cheer teams prepare for national competition

Since the end of last summer, Pleasanton school cheer teams have been working hard to prepare for the national cheer competition in Anaheim. Practices, cheering at games, competing at regional cheer competitions -- all to prepare them for what is sometimes known as the "Super Bowl of Cheerleading."

"We are preparing for our one chance to do our routine. In most sports, if you mess up, you get the rest of the game to earn back points," said Amador Valley varsity cheerleader Katie Heckart. "For cheerleaders, you only get 2 minutes and 30 seconds, and there aren't any do-overs."

Foothill JV co-captain Rachel Sanchez echoed Heckart's statements.

"It isn't something small. It's a big deal for us," Sanchez said.

Pleasanton and Hart middle school cheer teams will be competing at the United Spirit Association (USA) Jr. Nationals this weekend, held at Disney California Adventure Park's Hyperion Theatre.

Amador Valley and Foothill high school cheer teams are set to compete March 20-22 at the USA High School Spirit Nationals in the Anaheim Convention Center.

Both Hart and Foothill cheer teams have won National Championship titles in the past. Pleasanton Middle has also done relatively well at competitions. However, Amador cheer "struggled" for a few years at competitions -- but head coach Courtney Chipman said she is confident this year's junior varsity and varsity squads will perform well at nationals.

Harvest Park Middle School's cheer team competes through a different cheerleading association. They came back from Anaheim a few weeks ago, where the team placed first in the "Large Junior High" division at the cheerleading nationals for Universal Cheerleaders Association (UCA).

"I couldn't be more proud of our girls," said Harvest Park coach Kyra Lewis-Pervere. "They are incredibly hardworking, and it was wonderful to see them shine on the national level, while enjoying themselves, and having fun at the same time"

The cheerleading season begins towards the end of summer, during which practices consist of learning the competition routine and perfecting it for regionals -- in order to qualify for the national competition.

With each practice after regionals, coaches modify the routines based off judges' critiques. According to the Pleasanton coaches, the routine performed at nationals is never the same routine performed at regional competitions.

The past few months' practices before nationals have been dedicated to increasing stunt difficulty to meet the maximum "Difficulty" points, having the girls continuously run through routines to improve endurance, as well as cleaning up timing and synchronization.

Cheer practices start off with the squad stretching together and practicing their jumps. Right away, they go into practicing all their stunts in the routine, such as pyramids or basket tosses.

With nationals right around the corner, squads' stunts have increased in difficulty -- which means there could be times where girls will struggle and fall out of the stunt.

Pleasanton Middle coach Jennifer Gatan said the team has received critiques about the execution of the routine, which she and the team will be working to improve on before nationals.

"Bases, you need to keep your flyer up there. Flyers, if you're toe-ing ... heel. If you're heel-ing ...toe. No drops," Gatan said at a Wednesday night practice.

Practicing and perfecting stunts usually takes up most of practice time because the cheerleaders know that "one more time" from their coach never actually means one more time -- usually around five or more times.

At a recent Amador Valley varsity cheer practice, the girls were struggling with a couple of their stunts and the frustration was evident in some of the girls' faces.

Competition coach Linda Montoya went from stunt group to stunt group, figuring out what part of the stunt sequence the girls were struggling with.

As each stunt group kept practicing, one by one, each group started nailing its stunts.

"There is never a moment where there is time to relax," said Amador Valley varsity captain Claire Chandler. "All of our girls on this team put in a huge effort to make sure this season is a success. We work just as hard if not harder than any team or sport."

Most squads' practices take place during the weekdays after school, but Pleasanton, Hart and Amador have additional weekday or weekend practices as nationals approaches.

Foothill coach Kim De Joy, like all the coaches, expects her girls to attend every practice and give "110%" when there.

Although cheerleading is a team sport, the girls say they know they have the responsibility of practicing on their own time and focusing on personal goals that will aid in a successful performance at the big competition.

Emily LaDue, varsity cheerleader at Foothill, said she is personally focusing on hitting the more difficult stunts and improving in her tumbling.

Pleasanton Middle cheerleader Carly Nostrand will also be focusing on her stunting and tumbling, as well as her jumps.

Nationals are no joke in the "cheerleading world," and when a team has a reputation of winning -- it can add a lot of pressure to the cheerleaders.

"It's easy to get to the top, but it's harder to stay at the top," said Hart cheer coach Kelly Redgrave, whose team won the 2014 national title. "It's a pretty intense situation."

"We have to work our hardest," said Hannah Thoe, Hart cheer captain.

"Yeah, we have to do our best and show we want to win," added Hart cheerleader Megan Gee.

Like all athletes, Pleasanton cheerleaders are students first and foremost, so the coaches say they expect them to maintain good grades and keep up with their schoolwork -- all while balancing cheering at games, practices and weekend regional competitions.

"It's always very stressful. Sometimes staying up extra late to finish a project or essay is our only option," said Chandler.

Foothill JV co-captain Kimberly Wang said setting priorities and focusing on what needs to get done makes it a lot easier.

Hart and Pleasanton middle school teams are excited for nationals this weekend -- eager to show the judges they deserve the national title.

"I know we're able to do it ... we're going to give it our all," said Pleasanton Middle cheerleader Bella Huyler.

"We're going to try our hardest," said Thoe. "We put in a lot of hard work, and if we lose...we'll still be proud."

Amador and Foothill cheer teams still have a few weeks left until they take the Anaheim stage.

"We just want to try our best and hope to win," said Amador JV captain Katherine Jackson.

"Of course our hopes are to take home first place, but our main goal is to hit a solid routine," said Wang. "We want to leave the mat knowing that we couldn't have performed any better."

Although Hart and Pleasanton teams, as well as Amador and Foothill JV teams, will be competing against one another at nationals -- it's really just a friendly competition, according to the cheerleaders.

Even during the preparation for regionals and nationals, the high school cheerleaders will attend the middle school practices to help out.

In addition, the cheerleaders say each team cheers on and supports one another at all competitions.

"When other teams see that, they're just like 'What?!'," said Pleasanton Middle cheerleader Hailey Benner.

But of course, there is still some local rivalry between the two high school teams.

"When competition time does come around, I find no problem in turning up the competitiveness," said Chandler.

But in the end, no matter who takes home a trophy or not, the teams said they just want to perform their best and leave the mat with no regrets.

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