The Panthers cheer squad is in the second week of preparations for Powell High School’s longest athletic season.
While the PHS football and volleyball teams have five scheduled home games (not including regionals and playoffs), the cheer team has 10. And that’s just in the fall, before boys’ and girls’ basketball rolls around.
The cheer season stretches from August to March, and head coach Vicki Walsh said the Panthers will need every bit of that time to round the young team into fine form.
Of the 12 girls on the Panthers’ fall roster, five are freshmen, and only four are returning cheerleaders.
“I had seven seniors last year, so I lost a lot,” Walsh said. “It’s kind of a rebuilding time, but it’s good. It’s good to have a lot of underclassmen. I haven’t had five freshmen in a long time.”
Powell’s inexperience doubles as its potential.
“We have a really young group this year, but it’s a great thing. You can kind of mold them how you want them,” Walsh said.
Practices began on Aug. 17, and Walsh put the team through a refresher course of common cheers.
The girls were given a cheer DVD over the summer to study, and the offseason homework helped the team enter official practices with a base understanding.
“When they come in it’s not like we just have to go through everything, break it all down,” Walsh said. “It’s a little bit faster paced when we start. They kind of have an idea what they’re doing already.”
A voluntary cheer camp held at Rocky Mountain High School, and put on by the Kansas State cheer team, opened the Panthers’ minds to their own capabilities.
“The majority of our team was there, and by the second day of camp they were doing things that they couldn’t even probably have fathomed doing the first day,” Walsh said.
The head start is necessary in Walsh’s program, which requires a greater level of specificity out of its cheerleaders.
“I’m very detail-oriented. I am maybe more picky than most. Everything, to me, has to be perfect,” Walsh said. “There is a right way and a wrong way. If you were to do certain things the wrong way, and you were at a competition, the judges will notice.”
No fan at a PHS football or volleyball game will notice which way the cheerleaders’ fists are
facing, or whether a thumb is properly tucked, but those who know cheerleading will, as will those at the state competition.
“In cheer in general, things are very detail oriented,” Walsh said. “The way your wrists are, the way your arms are. The way you clap.
“It’s hard for girls to realize, ‘Oh, I have to think about a lot of different things going on other than just standing out here.’”
The Panthers cheer squad will make its debut when PHS football hosts Custer County High School (Miles City, Montana) at 6 p.m. on Friday.
Even for Panthers’ quartet of returners, the return to the field can be a nerve-wracking moment.
“That first time out in front of a crowd ... it’s very intimidating for them,” Walsh said. “I think every single one of them at some point has said, ‘Even though I’ve cheered before, it’s still scary.’”
The State Spirit Competition — March 9 in Casper — will be the Panthers’ time to showcase their talents and truly get credit for the work they put in to the details that so often go overlooked.
In the six-plus months until then, however, Walsh wants to put state on the back burner.
“I like state competition, don’t get me wrong,” she said. “I love going, it’s fun. And for the girls, I think for a lot of them, it’s their ultimate.
“But sometimes we need to focus back to why we’re a cheerleader. It’s not all about state competition. It’s about being a school ambassador, and being a positive person in your school and cheering for your teams.”
Football, volleyball and basketball seasons come first — literally and figuratively — and the team has too much to learn to let its focus slip to 2016.
“What we’re basically trying to do this first week-and-a-half — because we have a football game Friday, already — we’re just trying to make sure the girls know all the cheers, and we’re not really starting a lot of stunting and things like that just yet.
“We just need to focus on why we’re a cheerleader.”