Portsmouth cheerleaders are athletes, all right!
PORTSMOUTH — Perhaps the Portsmouth High School cheerleaders should have their own cheering squad. For if you don't think of them as athletes, Kaitlin Mitchell's got news for you.
“Try to live a day in our life. It’s hard," said Kaitlin, one of the squad's three senior co-captains.
While the PHS squad is seen by most people as they root for various school athletic teams while performing impressive — and often dangerous-looking — acrobatic routines, they're also competitors in their own right.
"It's a Rhode Island Interscholastic League winter sport," said coach Debora Valente. “We have our own meets and competition. We’ll have tryouts Dec. 2."
The team has seen more than its share of success over the years, too.
“They’re athletic kids. Out of the last 11 years, they’ve been state divisional champions eight times," said Ms. Valente. "Last year, we were the Rhode Island Coaches Association champions, then the next week we came in fourth (in the state). It was the first year in probably four years we weren’t state champions."
Not winning it all last year, however, has actually given the team extra motivation to do better going forward.
“It’s good, because it shakes the balance and they’re like, ‘Oh, maybe we’re not that good, we have to work harder.’ And I see that they’re working so much harder this year," she said.
Amber McCollum, another senior co-captain, said she's excited for competition this winter and that the girls have stepped up their training program.
“They work their butts off. After our last comp season, we had a personal trainer kind of help us out with doing abs. Fyers need abs to stay up in the air," she said, referring to team members who are elevated into the air by "bases" who "need the arms muscles and the leg muscles to keep us up there. We do a lot of conditioning toward comp season so we’ll have the endurance to keep going.”
Practices tax the body, said Kaitlin.
“We do a team stretch in the beginning, we run at the end. We do all different stunt conditioning – the same stunt until you get it. So if it takes 15 times, you’re going to do it 15 times until you get it," she said.
Cheering is a year-long commitment, Ms. Valente said.
"They work hard. They do conditioning programs but they train practically all year. They hit the weight room all year, they hit gymnastics studios. Otherwise, they can’t do what they do," she said.
And just like other athletes, cheerleaders get hurt, too.
“We have injuries all the time — concussions, sprained ankles a lot this year, with torn ligaments. We’ve had a lot of girls out this year compared to other years," said Kaitlin.
Although some of the routines look dangerous — girls are thrown high in the air without a net — safety is paramount, said Ms. Valente.
“I teach progressions," she said. "They start every year — and I don’t care if you’re the best athlete on the team — at the bottom level and progress up to the levels that they can do safely. If I didn’t think they could do it safely, they wouldn’t be doing it.”
The team lost five seniors last year, but has no fewer than nine this season.
“We look really good," said Brianna Dublin, the third senior co-captain. "There’s a lot of experience here and there’s a lot of potential. We’re always pushing hard to get even better.”
Amber said the younger members of the squad have stepped it up this year.
"There are a lot of younger girls who are also leaders," she said. "They don’t fool around; they get their stuff done. When it comes to stunting and tumbling, they know they need to beat other teams.”
As for the most challenging thing about being a cheerleader, Kaitlin said it's working with girls who are less experienced. "Also, trying to not give them criticism in a bad way and helping them through it all. And telling them it’s OK to cry; everyone cries," she said.
Respected as athletes?
Team members say it may not be the same at other schools, but at PHS they're considered to be true athletes. Of course, it didn't always used to be that way.
“We do a thing called boys dance where we get the football boys and the basketball boys and they do this for a week with us," said Amber, adding that the event is organized around Homecoming Week. "They finally realized that there was a lot to do; they were sore.”
Next year, both Brianna and Kaitlin hope to attend the University of New Hampshire, where they want to study nursing and cheer for the school's Division 1 football team. Amber wants to study to become a math teacher at the University of Rhode Island, where she also would like to continue cheering. She won't shed her ties with PHS, however.
“I know I’ll miss it. I’ll always want to come back to this team because it’s family," said Amber.
Cheering for a good cause, too
Ms. Valente says her girls aren't just pretty faces, but community leaders as well.
The cheering squad is known for organizing many fund-raisers for worthy causes. In October it held several collections for Cancer Awareness Month, raising $2,000 —$1,000 of which went to the Dana Farber Research Center.
The rest of the money was donated to local organization The Healing Co-Operative in the name of Leah Ploutz, a local woman with a husband and two small children. She was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer last year and is fighting the fight of her life, according to Ms. Valente.
At a pasta dinner last Thursday to raise money for new uniforms, the team used some of the funds to support a Navy family for Christmas and also collected for Toys for Tots. The team received large donations from local restaurant Scampi and also have 10 Navy men and women who served the meal and helped with games and other fun, Ms. Valente said.
She said of her team, "They will not be able to cheer the rest of their lives but they will know how to support their community and great causes as they move forward in their incredible lives."