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story.lead_photo.caption Julie Chandler/Special to the Herald-Leader Siloam Springs High School's competitive cheer team's performance at the 2018 4A-6A Co-Ed State Championship in Hot Springs on Dec. 15 earned them second place.

In just five years, the Siloam Springs High School's competitive cheer team has been on a journey that took them from being complete beginners to bringing home a state title.

The 28-member team earned runner-up at the 2018 4A-6A Co-Ed State Championship in Hot Springs on Dec. 15, scoring an 89.7, just a few points shy of Van Buren's 91.8. Springdale High School placed third with a score of 85.7, followed by Bentonville High School with a score of 93.9.

This is the fifth year Siloam Springs has had a competitive cheer team and the fourth year they have gone to the state competition, according to coach Jackie Clement. The first year the team went to state they learned a lot, then came back and did better the second year. Last year, they placed third, which was a big improvement, she said.

"In four years, we've gone from nothing to being state runner-up and that's a huge deal, I mean these girls and guys have worked really hard," she said.

Unlike some other sports, competitive cheer does not have to qualify to compete at state. Instead they participate in a series of competitions throughout the season that helps them understand where they stand and gives them insights on where improvement is needed.

The team had a successful season before the state competition this year. At the first competition of the year at Rogers Heritage High, Siloam Springs came in second to Bentonville. At the second competition at Fayetteville, the team came in first, then at the third competition at Gentry, the team came in second to Springdale. At the final and largest competition before state in Bentonville on Dec. 10, the team took first place, Clement said.

"So when we were going into state, we had our hopes up," she said. "We were ready to go, we knew we just needed to hit a clean routine and then the judges were just going to be able to decide which routine they liked best. That's what happened."

In cheer leading, teams will receive deductions if they fall or if their timing is off. During the state competition, Siloam Springs' deduction sheet showed they scored a 0 with no points taken away for mistakes. It was the first time for the team to score a 0 at state, Clement said.

"We hit the very best routine we could hit and our competition -- Van Buren, the one that won state champion -- they also hit a 0 so it basically just came right down to what was the judges' overall impression," she said.

The team has set a goal of hearing their name called at state all year long, Clement said.

"When they called us, we were just overjoyed," she said. "I'm going to get teary-eyed, only because it's been four or five years of blood, sweat and tears being poured into this and my family has sacrificed a lot just like most all coaches do. ... It was just an emotional time for me to know that we have worked so hard and this has finally paid off, all the time and effort and team building and practices and changing routines and looking at every finite detail that we could had finally paid off."

In competitive cheer, teams have a total of 2.5 minutes to do their routine, including 1 minute of cheer and 1.5 minutes of dance.

"We have 2.5 minutes to do our best performance and in those 2.5 minutes we have to be building, be tumbling, be jumping, be dancing, just cram pack everything into 2.5 minutes so it takes a lot of endurance and they have to be in shape," Clement said. "It's a hard 2.5 minutes and when they get through, they're totally spent."

There are several moments in the routine that catch the crowd's attention, including a basket toss in the beginning where four guys throw one of the cheerleaders really high in the air, as well as a moment where senior Dalton Ferguson throws a girl into the air then catches her standing with both of her feet in one hand, Clement said.

"No other team in the state can do that," she said.

Ferguson, a former football player, came to the cheer team last year. This year, he decided to focus solely on cheer because it is more likely he will earn a college scholarship in that sport, Clement said. Ferguson has become a leader on the team and the "go to person," she said.

Ferguson said he has developed a passion for cheer. He loves the support and hard work of the people on his team as well as the encouragement and support from fans and friends. He plans to continue cheer in college and perhaps have a career in coaching, he said.

Ferguson's skills, and the abilities of the other junior and senior boys and girls, caught the attention of college recruiters at the state competition, Clement said. As soon as the team began practicing on the mats and set up the move where Ferguson catches a cheerleader in one hand, they found themselves surrounded by recruiters, she said.

"We've never had that many coaches from colleges coming and saying we want your athletes and so it was really a proud moment for me (as) a coach, just to be able to say, 'Yes, they worked really hard and they want to cheer in college and they're finally kind of getting the recognition they worked so hard for,'" she said.

Senior Avery Whorton has been a part of the team since her sophomore year and has watched it grow.

On Thursday, Whorton said she watched a video of a performance from three years ago and compared it to the video of the team's performance at state. The difference was so striking that Whorton said she grew emotional.

Whorton said she is amazed at how she has grown personally and how the team has grown, in physical strength, skills and closeness over the past three years.

Whorton said she doesn't plan to cheer in college, but she did receive an offer to become a Universal Cheerleaders Association (UCA) staff member and teach at cheer camps.

In addition to growing in success, the size of the cheerleading program in Siloam Springs has doubled over the past five years. When Clement started there were 45 cheerleaders in grades eight through twelve, now there are 90, she said. Clement said that Tamara Stewart helped her grow the program before deciding to take a break to stay home with her child.

James and Elicia Williamson, of Elite Cheer Company, also help coach the team on tumbling and many of the cheerleaders also participate in both programs.

The cheer program has also received a lot of support from other coaches and the school administration. Clement said that cheerleaders were very pleased when head football coach Brandon Craig asked football players to attend their competitions to return the support that cheerleaders show the players on the field.

High school principal Anne Martfeld, a former cheer coach, has also attended all their competitions, and attended the state competition along with Superintendent Ken Ramey, Clement said.

Clement said she's excited about the future of cheer in Siloam Springs and proud of the work ethic and perseverance her team has shown.

"There are so many great things that have happened this year besides winning an award that we can brag about, as far as school spirit, support from the other teams for our efforts, that's exciting," she said.

Sports on 12/26/2018

Print Headline: Cheer team's journey leads to state title

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