Panther cheer team the face of school spirit

Posted 11/13/18

For Powell High School junior Scarlette Mendoza, cheerleading was something she’d always wanted to try. But as is the case for so many, fear and uncertainty kept her from giving the sport a …

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Panther cheer team the face of school spirit

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For Powell High School junior Scarlette Mendoza, cheerleading was something she’d always wanted to try. But as is the case for so many, fear and uncertainty kept her from giving the sport a shot.

“Ever since I was little, I liked the idea of being a cheerleader,” she said. “But I never had the courage to try out, because I was so scared of being rejected.”

Mendoza finally found the courage to face her fears and try out last year, when she heard the Panthers cheerleading squad was looking for new recruits. Now in her second year, Mendoza hasn’t regretted her decision, and would encourage others to do the same.

“For the girls that are deciding whether or not to try out, I think they should,” she said. “Not only is it fun, you become close with the girls and coaches. I think that’s the best.”

Though the season is young, the Panther cheer team had its first competition over the weekend, placing third out of nine teams in the large-team category at the 7220 Game Day Spirit Competition in Laramie. Cheyenne South and Laramie — both 4A schools —  finished first and second. The Panthers won the award for Excellence in Crowd Leading, and Kaitlyn Decker won the jump contest, competing against 30 other cheerleaders.

“The girls did so amazing,” said Panther head coach Vicki Walsh. “I was very happy with the outcome and their performance was so incredible. I was very proud of them. It was a very fun competition and a great day for Panther Cheer.”

A new year, many new faces

Boasting a roster of between 20 and 22 athletes, the 2018-19 Powell High School cheerleading team is a bit of an anomaly: Historically, the number of girls participating in the year-long activity is about half that — last year’s squad consisted of just nine girls by the time the state cheer competition rolled around in March.

“This has been the biggest team I’ve ever had,” said Walsh, now in her 20th season at the helm of the cheer team. “I typically have right around 16, sometimes less, sometimes more. I had over 40 girls try out this year, and it was really hard to pick 22. We had a really good group of girls try out.”

Walsh said a number of factors could have contributed to the higher-than-average turnout for tryouts, not the least of which is a renewed interest in cheer at the middle school level. Annie Price, one of Walsh’s former cheerleaders, currently works with middle school cheer coach Marci Brauchie at Powell Middle School, and the pair is creating interest in the sport. Enrollment is also up, adding to the larger pool of interested kids.

“She’s really taught them a lot,” Walsh said of Price. “She has a big crew too this year, 20-some girls, and I just watched them cheer at a seventh grade game the other night. I think interest at the middle school is definitely part of it, because I had a lot of incoming freshmen.”

Freshman Rylee White has been cheering since the seventh grade, but even with a couple of years’ experience under her belt, she knew competition for the open spots would be tough given this year’s numbers.

“I was kind of scared to try out, but it ended up being a great decision,” said White, who is also active in 4-H and a member of Powell’s traveling softball team. “Being a cheerleader is such a great experience. ... I love football games the most, because you get the crowd involved.”

Asked whether she prefers a large squad to a smaller one, Walsh said there are benefits to both.

“With a larger squad, you definitely have the capability of doing a lot more stuff. I think you can be a little more showy when you have that many girls out there,” she explained. “But there are advantages to both ways; with a smaller group, you get to know all the girls a little bit better.”

For some of the veterans, finding out if they made the team was a bit of a nerve-wracking experience — with the number of younger girls trying out so high, making the team wasn’t a given.

“This season we were all fairly nervous, because we were expecting a smaller team,” said second-year cheerleader Taeli Hessenthaler. “We heard that a lot of incoming freshmen had made the team. We all opened our letters together, and it was so cool to see how big our team would be, and how excited everyone was.”

A sport and an activity

The debate of whether cheerleading should be classified as a sport has raged for years. But one look at the Panther

cheerleading squad’s practice regiment (five days a week with an occasional Saturday during off-game weeks), coupled with a season that starts in August and ends in March (it’s rivaled only by speech and debate in that category), illustrates the level of commitment put forth by participants.

“I think when kids come in to cheer, they don’t realize all that we do,” Walsh said. “Practices are just like practices for any other sport: We work out, we get in shape, we work hard. The girls have to learn 50-60 cheers before their first football game.”

Cheerleading has evolved over the years into a demanding exercise — one that includes hours of training, as well as participation in local and regional competitions.

“There’s jumping, there’s dancing, there’s stunting,” Walsh said, referring to pyramids, basket tosses, group jumps. “Stunting is not something that happens overnight; there’s a lot of detail and a lot of different things they have to know. It can be pretty intense as far as all the things they have to do.”

Cheerleaders are also out in the community — leading assemblies, visiting elementary schools, conducting camps for younger kids and taking part in parades. During a busy week like Homecoming, the squad tries to hit every sporting event — including the ones not typically associated with cheer. This year, the group was also invited to help Westside Elementary School celebrate its Blue Ribbon award.

“Anytime we can get out and do something at other schools, the girls just have so much fun with that,” Walsh said. “It’s good publicity for us, and the little kids love it.”

A chance to compete

Cheer competitions have become increasingly popular across the nation, and Wyoming is no exception. In the past, the Panthers have been limited to the state competition held each spring; however, this year the cheer squad has the opportunity to participate in three competitions, beginning with last weekend’s 7220 Game Day Spirit Competition in Laramie. There were 20 teams at the event, with the Panthers competing in the large-team category with 4A schools.

The Panthers will also participate in a competition in Cody at the Heart Mountain Gymnastics Club in February, where they’ll perform their stunt routine.

“We’re getting a little bit more opportunity to compete, because the girls work really hard,” Walsh said. “The Game Day routine is only three minutes long, and our stunt routine is only two-and-a-half minutes, and usually you get to do it one time and that’s it. It’s a lot of hard work for five minutes.”

Training for a competition differs somewhat from preparing for a sporting event; competition practices are usually more structured and deliberate, with the focus on choreography and safety.

“To me, training for competition feels more intense, knowing that we will be competing for a trophy,” said senior Sarah Rodriguez. “When practicing for competition, we are more focused and serious on what we’re doing, especially since we normally compete in [just] two routines.”

A special team

Walsh called this year’s squad “just an amazing group of girls,” praising their versatility.

“They all just really stand out in so many ways; they have so much potential,” the coach said. “This group has just been a lot of fun this year so far, and I’m just really happy with how far they’ve come in a short amount of time.”

This year’s team features six seniors: Rodriguez, Alyssa Gould, Gracie McLain, McKennah Buck, Gabri Lundberg and McKenzie Thompson. Walsh said they’ve been helping the younger girls on a team that’s mostly new.

“All of my returners have been really, really good about helping the new girls become part of our cheer family and feeling like they’re part of the team,” the coach said.

Lundberg is the lone newcomer to the team among the seniors; she decided to try out this season as a means of doing something different. What she’s enjoyed the most about the experience so far is the camaraderie with her teammates.

“I enjoy being able to learn and improve myself everyday at practice, as well as the fun and positive atmosphere,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed being so welcomed by all the other girls on the team.”

Now two decades into a coaching career, Walsh said the most gratifying aspect of the experience is the relationships that are built.

“All these kids, I just feel like they’re my own; I treat them like they’re my own kids,” she said, adding, “Every year is different — sometimes you have really good groups, and sometimes you have groups you have challenges with. It’s just so much fun to get to see where they start and where they end every year. ... It’s a long year for those kids, and it’s just real gratifying to know how far they’ve come in that time frame.”

“And after the fact, I’ll have girls come back and tell me, ‘You made such a big impact on my life,’” Walsh added. “That’s heartwarming for me.”

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