Cheerleading looks glamorous, and lots of people think it's all fun and games. But it's actually hard work and serious business — and Saturday, all that effort paid off for the cheerleaders of Chantilly High.
For the third year in a row, the team won the Northern Region Cheerleading Competition, at Robinson Secondary School, and will compete in the state finals, March 23, at VCU in Richmond.
"It's fantastic," said Chantilly's head cheerleading coach, Jim Kelly. "In the seven years I've been here, we've won five out of the seven regional competitions. And we won all but two district competitions, in the past eight or nine years."
He attributes it to the way Chantilly handles its freshman, JV and varsity cheerleading squads. Years ago, he said, "We started focusing on the skills and techniques of the freshmen. We don't look at it as three separate squads but, rather, as a cheerleading program."
Sixty girls total are on the three squads, and the 25-member varsity has 14 seniors, 6 juniors, 3 sophomores and 2 freshmen. All the cheerleaders — even those already on it — try out for the varsity, each year. Said Kelly: "We decided to put all the best people on the varsity and not limit it because of age."
The strategy worked. First, Chantilly's varsity won the Concorde District championship; then it qualified for regionals, Nov. 4, at the semi-regionals at Robinson. On Saturday, the girls performed their energetic routine in two, 3-minute, competitive rounds to a hip-hop music mix.
"Our opening is to a cheer-mix song," said one of the team's three captains, senior Stephanie Smerdzinski, 17. "Most of our music is fast and upbeat — something really exciting that'll get you going. In the past, our routines were mainly based on stunts. But this year, we had a lot more tumbling and a bigger variety of motions."
Going into regionals, she said, the cheerleaders were confident, "But we still knew we had to go out and really hit it because the other teams were going to come out strong. We knew they'd fix whatever problems they'd had in semi-regionals and improve, and we had to be ready for a good competition."
Five cheerleading coaches from Southern Virginia judged the routines, with four others concentrating on the technical aspects and any mistakes. Teams were judged on: Stunts, choreography, dance, motions, jumps, tumbling, voice projection, the routine's overall appearance and transitions from one part to another.
Chantilly did fine in the first round but, the second time, said Smerdzinski, "We had a little bit of a wobble in our opening pyramid. But our team's good at recovering, so we picked ourselves up and finished the routine strong." When Chantilly won, she said, "Everyone went crazy."
"It's an awesome feeling," she continued. "We've been working so hard, struggling to put together the routine, and then stressing about it because you don't know how the other teams are gonna do, so you're always worrying. And there's constant practice, so [winning] was a feeling of relief — we let it all out."
Besides the team's technical expertise, said Smerdzinski, "What sets us apart is that everyone puts their whole heart into it, and it really shows in the energy and enthusiasm we have. Everyone's excited to be out there, the judges pick up on it and the crowd can tell."
Under Kelly and assistant coach Jean Smith, the girls start working on routines in August, practicing six days a week, three hours a day, and taking gymnastics on Sundays. And that's in addition to performing totally different routines at the Charger sports events.
"We have really good coaches," said Molly Cash, 17, another captain. "They work hard and they're good role models for us — we definitely wouldn't be here without them." In competition, she said, "Staying focused, having fun and showing a lot of spirit are the most important things. We love what we do, and we perform with our hearts."
Still, it's hard juggling cheerleading with schoolwork, family and friends — not to mention SATs, plus college applications and essays for the seniors. "School is the first priority, and it's hard to give 100 percent to both it and cheerleading," said Cash. "I want to do well and go to a good college, but I also want to win for the rest of the girls. And, as a captain, I have to be a role model for them — I can't let my stress affect the way I participate in practice."
Another captain, Anne Tran, 17, is exhausted after practice and does homework late at night or during class. But her teachers are supportive and understanding if she turns in assignments late. And she's delighted that all the girls have become best friends and even socialize together. "We spend so much time together and learn so much about each other," she said. "That's why I keep coming back."
The coaches taught them that competing isn't always about winning. "They say we should just go out there, do our best and have fun," said Tran. "And when we have fun, we usually win. I had so much pride [Saturday] because those are my girls — we all worked our butts off together." As for states, she said, "We just have to stay focused and determined."
Proud of his team, Kelly said half were new to the varsity, this year. A former college cheerleader who choreographed routines for high-school competitive teams, he said those girls had six to eight months to prepare for meets. "Here, we only have eight weeks," said Kelly. "That just shows the girls' dedication. They don't complain — they realize what they're part of, and it means a lot to them."