The Grayson County High School and Middle School cheerleading teams leave for a national competition on Thursday afternoon, after a boisterous sendoff at the high school last night. The Orlando, Florida event is considered the most prestigious cheer event in the nation for high school and middle school squads.
Last year, the middle school finished in 10th place nationally, the highest finish a Grayson County squad has ever attained. But just being invited to perform in the event is an achievement in and of itself.
“It’s a serious accomplishment,” Grayson County High School cheer coach Erika Devore said. “It’s something that every team I’ve had to this point has worked toward; to be competitive at this level.”
In her ninth year coaching the high school cheer squad, Devore places high importance on competing against the best the nation has to offer.
“That’s why we go to UCA (Universal Cheerleader’s Association), it’s the most competitive national competition for high school teams, and if you can’t beat the best then you shouldn’t even try,” Devore flatly stated. “That’s why we’re going there (to Orlando) as opposed to some other national (competition).”
This year’s Grayson County squad has clearly separated itself from GCHS cheer teams of the past. For this Cougar cheer squad, being special is all about effort and dedication.
It’s “their attitude, their work ethic,” Devore said about what makes this group of cheerleaders special. “They show up when they’re sick; they show up when they’ve got the stomach virus; they show up when they’ve got the flu.”
In addition to being dedicated, being an athlete is of vital importance for today’s cheerleaders; for both the girls and the young men who are team members. And in GCHS’s case, there are three male cheerleaders charged with holding and catching their female counterparts in stunts and other choreographed moves, making the boy’s conditioning of the utmost importance.
“These guys have put in extra time outside of practice to prepare, (doing) strength training,” Devore said. “You know, being a male cheerleader is serious business and it’s not unlike any other sport in the (additional) training they have to do outside of practice.”
Devore’s husband, Jonathan Devore, serves as the squad’s strength and conditioning guru, developing cheer-specific warm-ups and strength exercises.
“Over the summer we did a “Spartacus” workout; just (working on) core strength and tried to show the kids things they can do at home, because that’s really where you make a difference,” Devore said. “Are you going to do the core stuff at home? When we’re at practice we’re running the routine as hard as we can go, and conditioning takes a back seat.”
But the addition this year of Jonathan as an assistant cheer coach has made a difference in the performance and durability of the team.
“He’s (Jonathan) studied conditioning; he coaches track so he’s had a lot of experience with conditioning,” Devore said about her husband. “And I think that’s why we haven’t had a lot of injuries (this year). He developed a warm-up for them to do, and I think that warm-up has prevented ACL injuries, and has prevented (many) types of injuries” common in cheerleading.
“This has been the healthiest team I’ve ever had, and I think that’s a credit to my husband and the strength training he (has instituted) this year,” Devore proudly stated.
And being in peak physical and mental condition is one aspect of the sport that simply is not negotiable.
“This is a sport that’s not for the faint of heart,” Devore said. “They get knocked in the face, they fall on their face, they have weak ankles (because of the grueling practices and routines performed), and they get injuries.”
It’s surely a different cheerleading world than it was decades ago. Something clearly evident as one witnesses the squad’s athleticism as they perform their two-and-a-half minute routine.
“Well, cheerleading back in the day was just jumping around and shaking pom poms,” Devore pointed out. “Now, all you have to do is watch the University of Kentucky or a national competition, and you see that it’s jumping high, which means (you need to have) strong ankles; it’s being able to tumble, which is a strong core; it’s being able to stunt, which is basically leg strength. Unlike anything else, it’s a full-body sport.”
And a team sport as well.
“(Cheerleading) is not about individual skill, like any other (team) sport, you have to work together,” Devore said. “We have to depend on every single person to do what they (are required to do). So it’s just a different level of strength all together.”
As one can imagine, coaching and participating in cheerleading is a time consuming proposition. It’s a year-round sport with no breaks, and one must be dedicated to excel as the Grayson County squads have.
“We practice so much, I give up so much of my own family time, and I do it because they are such a great group of kids,” Devore gushed. “I never one time dreaded going to practice, because I knew they were going to give me everything they had.”
And giving everything they have is what both squads will do in Orlando this weekend as they vie to represent Grayson County with their outstanding performances. The hours of practice, the sacrifices made by team members and coaches alike are justified, not with winning the UCA competition, but by representing Grayson County and their families with great effort and a commitment to excellence.