Cheerleaders are the Rodney Dangerfields of high school athletics: They don't get no respect, no respect at all.
At least not from those unfamiliar with the work and skill that goes into what they do.
Some football and basketball players -- both boys and girls -- disrespect them and accuse them of just being in the way. Despite being close friends with some cheerleaders, one girl's basketball player, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, "All they do is stand there and shake and yell."
And despite competing against other squads twice a year in tournaments of their own, a cheerleading squad's accomplishments will never show up on the sports pages. Pool players get more ink.
The Kenai Central High School squad shows timing is everything during an intricately choreographed half-time routine.
Photo by Jay Barrett
"I just want them to come to one of our practices, and see what we do," said Kenai Central High School senior Tosha Swan, the de facto leader of the 10-girl varsity squad that has no official captain.
"I don't argue with people anymore. It's a really hard battle we fight every day," said KCHS coach Jennifer Rosin. "The cheerleaders do a tough job very well and look good doing it."
She added that both the varsity and junior varsity teams practice five nights a week and then cheer four full games apiece on weekends.
"And they have to work during timeouts and at halftime when the players are resting," she said.
Kenai Central High School cheerleaders Crystal Main, Robin Mida and Megan Moore celebrate after the Kardinal boys varsity upset longtime rival Soldotna last week in Kenai.
Photo by Jay Barrett
In addition to practicing cheers, the KCHS cheerleaders practice dance, gymnastics and acrobatics, run five miles a week and lift weights.
Yes, cheerleaders lift weights.
"It takes a lot of strength to hold another girl your weight or greater above your head," Swan said.
She should know. Swan, a "flyer" earlier in her career -- one of the girls who are tossed nearly 15 feet into the air during stunts -- is now a "base," one of the girls doing the tossing and catching.
Soldotna varsity cheerleader Kayla Mullican claps in time with her teammates on the sidelines during a game between the SoHi Lady Stars and Skyview in the last game of the regular season last weekend.
Photo by Jay Barrett
Needless to say, bruises, sprains and black eyes are not uncommon.
"The girls gauge how hard each other is trying by how many bruises they have," said Rosin, a former cheerleader and volleyball player herself at Nikiski Middle-Senior High School. "This is a contact sport."
Back problems also are epidemic among the girls.
"Chiropractors love cheerleaders," Rosin said. "It takes a lot of strength to throw a 115-pound girl 15 feet into the air. It takes its toll."
SoHi varsity cheerleaders, from left to right, senior Nicole Egholm, sophomore Jamie Grubb, seniors Erin Carver, Veronica Anderson and Jessica Sherman, and junior Sarah Todd encourage the crowd to make some noise during a recent game.
Photo by Jay Barrett
Soldotna High School cheerleader coach Jamie Earll agrees.
"This is a tough sport that takes a lot of teamwork," Earll said. "If one person on the team fails, a lot of people can get hurt.
"It takes a lot of talent and time to learn these stunts."
Swan said she would love to have boys on the cheerleading squad, which would open up an expanded world of stunts to the team.
"A guy cheerleader can hold a girl up with one hand, but we can't," she said.
Cheerleading has a long and proud history: President George W. Bush, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright and former President Ronald Reagan were all cheerleaders.
But the disrespect for cheerleaders in general seems to stem from the image of them as mere accouterments to the actual game.
It's the one sure thing to get a cheerleader's blood boiling.
"They think we're all ditsy blondes, but we're not," said Swan, an honor roll student and student council representative.
"They don't know how hard we work," said SoHi senior Aimee Jaillet. "And we don't do it to prove it's a sport, we do it because we like it. It's very competitive."
Earll said she hears the cheerleaders getting grief and being picked on about their sport, but not at all from the parents of players.
"If we aren't at an away game, we get calls from basketball parents asking us to be there," she said. "They say it's not the same without us."
"Getting the crowd into the game is the main thing," said Veronica Anderson, a senior on the SoHi varsity team. "It's really important. If they're not into the game, we get in their faces and tell them to be louder."
Earll, a first year coach, is unable to travel off the peninsula due to family commitments, meaning her squad can't travel either. It's an imperfect compromise that had to be struck to ensure there was a cheerleading squad for basketball season this year at all.
In fact, the inability to find a qualified coach -- they must be certified by one of the two cheerleading organizations if the squad does any stunt work -- is why Skyview High School does not have cheerleaders for basketball this year.
"We advertised for a cheerleading coach for two months before the basketball season began, and got no takers at all," said Skyview Assistant Principal Allan Miller.
At Nikiski, Principal Robin Williams said there was a coach in place and a number of girls initially interested, but tragedy befell one of them, and when tryouts were held, only two girls turned out, which was not enough to field a squad.
Cheerleaders are held to the same academic requirements as other athletes.
Rosin has a strict rule for her cheerleaders: If they become ineligible twice in one year, they are off the squad.
Earll is the same way.
"I'm strong with the rules (regarding) academics, eligibility and absenteeism. I'm not here for nothing," she said.
In fact, Earll said she had to let one of her most experienced varsity cheerleaders go due to ineligibility less than two weeks before the regional tournament.
It costs about $5,000 a year to run a cheerleading program, and much of that money the cheerleaders themselves raise.
At SoHi, the cheerleaders have to pay for their own uniforms, though KCHS pays for its squad's outfits.
"It costs about $400 for a girl to get started in cheerleading," Earll said.
As a result, cheerleaders have to work year-round to raise money, holding car washes, pie auctions, split the pot raffles and such.
Speaking of uniforms, the KCHS cheerleaders got new ones this year, which has caused a bit of a stir. The tops cross behind the neck, baring the girls shoulders, and the skirts have side slits in the pleats for easier movement.
"It gets pretty warm cheering two solid games and the halftimes," Rosin said, explaining the bare shoulders.
And though clothing styles these days are featuring a lot of belly buttons, it is not allowed at KCHS.
"No midriffs. That's our rule," Rosin said. "I can't stand bellies showing. I'm pretty conservative."
Jaillet defended her cross-town rival's outfits.
"If you look at other teams from all over the U.S., they are a lot more risque than Kenai," she said.
"My girls like the Kenai uniforms," Earll said. "They think they're crisp and '90s, and think ours are old-fashioned now."
Rosin said the new uniforms were selected with the approval of the school's administration, and if there had been any real complaints or problems with them, she would have heard about it from the principal.
"Sam (Stewart) trusts me," she said of her school's principal. "And I trust him."
Swan admits that cheerleaders strive to look good.
"What's wrong with looking good?" she asked.
She said a teacher at her school teases her by asking if tanning four times a week is a requirement. It's not, she said with a laugh, and they don't tan that often anyway.
"We do our hair and makeup (for games), but we don't do anymore than we do every day," Swan said.
"We think about looks a lot," admitted Anderson. "I tan one or two times a week. But it isn't wrong to look good."
The benefits of cheerleading are that it helps participants gain strength and cultivate poise. Anderson said it also has cured her of shyness.
"It has definitely helped so much with confidence," she said. "You can't be shy and be a cheerleader."
The past three days, Thursday through Saturday, the SoHi and KCHS teams were cheering their boys and girls basketball squads at the Region III 4A tournament in Kodiak, where they themselves competed against each other and cheerleaders from other schools.
Earll said they are judged during one game and their halftime performances, and a separate 2 1/2-minute routine with dance, cheers and stunts, set to music.
"They judge us on our dance ability, how well we interact and our gymnastics," she said.
The winners will go on to compete at the state basketball tournament in Anchorage next weekend, which is the last chance for seniors to shine.
But a high school cheerleader's career doesn't have to end with the end of the season.
Jaillet, who cheered her last home game last week, plans to attend Arizona State University this fall to study international relations and prelaw ("I want to be the next James Bond"), and will be training all summer so she can try out for the cheerleading squad there.
"I'll work on my tumbling a lot and try to get abs," she said.
Does the prospect of cheering before 50,000 more people at Sun Devil Stadium than she does now in the SoHi gym scare Jaillet?
Not at all.
"I'm excited by it. I love dancing and performing in front of people," she said.
Earll said there are many major colleges that offer full scholarships to cheerleaders, just as they do for football and basketball players.
"There is opportunity for girls to move on from here," she said.
It might even be more probable for a good cheerleader to get a scholarship -- or simply make the team -- in college, than for an outstanding local basketball player. There is not the extreme physical difference between a high school and college cheerleader, like there is in basketball players where a great 6-foot tall high school forward goes to college and suddenly finds he is shorter than the back up point guard.
"There are a lot more scholarships for football and basketball players. I wish they'd give us the same opportunity," Anderson said.
One obstacle in the way of producing cheerleaders with more experience before college is the lack of a feeder program in area middle schools, Rosin said.
"They have Pop Warner and junior high cheerleaders in the (Mat-Su) valley, which helps them a lot," she said. "But not here."
She said cheering is so popular at the Mat-Su school Colony that the junior varsity team has 40 members, allowing the best of the best to make the varsity squad.
None of the middle schools in the central peninsula have cheerleading squads, so aspiring young cheerleaders here must settle for occasional workshops and camps put on by the high school teams, and wait until ninth grade to enter the program.
But it's worth it.
"If they could see the work that we put in, they'd appreciate us more," said Swan.
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