The Juneau-Douglas High School Cheerleading and Stunt team placed sixth at the Universal Spirit Association Cheerleading Nationals in Los Angeles March 30-April 2. JDHS's best joined the competion among 2,800 cheerleaders on 18 teams from across the United States.
It was a creditable showing, by any standard, especially when you consider that Juneau's team of 16 - five boys and 11 girls - ran up against behemoth teams with 25 members, said Sarah Herrick, a graduating JDHS senior and veteran cheerleader.
Plus, nine of the JDHS team were rookies.
Sarah will be teaching the finer points of cheerleading at various venues around the country this summer, an honor bestowed on only a few after intense national competition.
Asked what the team had to do to bring home the trophy, Coach - and JDHS registrar - Robin Eleazar spelled the routine out: Two-and-a-half minutes of all-out performance and, of course, yelling.
The routine starts with seven members doing toe touches. This is done with the entire body out of touch with the earth and with the participants' smiles set on stun and aimed right at the judges. Upon landing, the seven jump into back handsprings while, in the background, the rest of the team are perfoming basket tosses, wherein a girl is thrown into the air and - if all goes according to plan - comes down and is caught. Then the boys do toss-to-hands, that is, throw more girls into the air, which evolves into two spinning basket tosses as three team members do roundoff back handsprings. The latter involve traveling great distances by repeatedly leaping backwards head-first and having the feet follow.
The music goes silent for the cheer, here repeated verbatim for Crimson Bear fans:
Alaskan pride, so strong, we'll spell it out, you follow along. With B-E-A-R-S, bears. We're here, oh yes! We're fierce, yeah! We're here, Juneau cheer, this is our year. We're here and ready for more - back better than before! We're tight, yeah! You know! Crimson Bears represent Juneau!
As the cheer goes on, there is much arm motion and leaping toe touches by the entire team, as well as three Liberties wherein a boy tosses a girl above his head, she lands on her feet in his hands and draws one leg up. When the Liberties are done there is another 30 or 40 seconds more of gymnastics and stunts.
The skills invoved are considerable, said Coach Eleazar, who is in her sixth and final year as guide to JDHS' cheerleaders. But cheerleading gives the kids a lot more than the opportunity for athletic development. "People get very close, like a family," she said.
Megan Gustafson, a pert blond sophomore who is the most frequent tossee in the routine, concurred. "We're friends the whole year; we're like sisters," she said. Further she attributes her climbing grade point average to the self-discipline that cheerleading evokes. In her freshman year, she said, her GPA was below 3.0. It is now 3.6.
"In the past three years, all graduating JDHS cheerleaders have gone on to college," Coach Eleazar said. At the same time, she said, the team should in no way be considered elitist: Two team members are English-as-a-second-language students, and four are special education students. "We don't just take the kids with the 4.0's," she said. "We help each other out on weekends with schoolwork and other things. The older kids will even help when the younger kids are having trouble with peer pressure."
Finally, what does the team think of the continuing controversy about whether cheerleading is a sport?
Coach Eleazar points out that taped portions of the L.A. nationals are slated to be shown on ESPN.
Is it a sport?
Coach Eleazar: It's a sport.
Sarah Herrick: It's a sport.
Megan Gustafson: It's a sport.
End of controversy.