For nearly two decades, competitive cheer teams have battled for the right to raise the Michigan High School Athletic Association state championship banner.
And in the 19 years since the MHSAA made it an official varsity sport, competitive cheerleading has battled to belong — fighting a shrinking, but still held belief by some that cheering is not a sport.
“I have encountered that, and I encourage anybody to come and try to do what we do,” said Delton Kellog head coach Zoe Reynolds. “I don’t tell a football player what they’re doing is not a sport. You come put on a cheerleading skirt and try to do the things these girls are doing.”
Aerial cartwheels, double hook jumps, hanging pyramids and the show-n-go — just a few of the moves competitive cheerleaders are wowing crowds with.
As opposed to sideline cheering, competitive cheer is an all-girls sport where teams condition, practice and prepare solely for competition.
There are three rounds in competition: Round 1 is the required round, where teams are marked for their floor mobility, vocals, jumps, team coordination, difficulty or variety and general impression; Round 2 is the compulsory round, where at least five specified skills have to be performed including at least one demonstrating flexibility, jumping and tumbling; Round 3 is the open round, where teams are judged on floor mobility, vocals, team coordination and skills.
The top four teams at each district move on to regionals, and then the top four at regionals advance to the state meet at the Delta Plex in Grand Rapids on March 1-2.
Locally, there are 11 varsity competitive cheer teams: Harper Creek and Pennfield (Division 3), Gull Lake (Division 2), and Athens, Bronson, Colon, Delton Kellogg, Homer, Maple Valley, Quincy and Union City (Division 4).
As enthusiastic as those schools are about having programs, the growth of the sport seems to be slowing in the area. Many schools are facing budget cuts, and competitive cheerleading is often one of the first sports on the chopping block since is still considered new.
Lakeview, which had one of the more established programs in the area, does not have a competitive cheer team in 2012-13. Part of the problem was the Spartans were forced to find a new coach before the season began and there still are not many qualified coaches in the area. Another reason was low participation numbers.
Climax-Scotts only had four athletes on its team in 2011-12, and also does not field a varsity team this season.
Harper Creek is running into some of the same issues. The Beavers operate as a club sport with no funding from the school. Despite having 40 athletes in her program three years ago, head coach Tracy Tobias has seen participation numbers dwindle to just nine on varsity this season — and only three returners.
“The high school program has dropped because girls realize this is hard work,” Tobias said. “And we work just as hard as any other team.”
The problem with having low numbers, as with any other sport, is depth. And in a sport where ‘flyers’ are tossed and spinning in the air before landing in the arms of teammates, injuries happen.
“We use a lot of tape,” joked Tobias. “It’s a very dangerous sport, but one of my big concerns is safety. I won’t put something out there that’s not safe and has potential for injury. We fall, more more often then not its from nerves opposed to physical ability.”
According to a 2012 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the overall injury rate in high school cheerleading is lower than in other girls’ high school sports. But as routines become more complex and skill levels raise, so does the danger.
The ‘flyer’, the girl who is elevated or tossed into the air, is generally the most at risk for serious injury.
“You have to be a little bit of a daredevil,” said Reynolds. “But also somebody that is in control with your body. If they don’t have control, it will never work.”
Potential injuries don’t seem to be scaring off competitive cheerleaders at some of the local small schools.
Colon has enjoyed the most success of any local program. The Magi advanced to seven consecutive state finals between 2004-2010, placing third in Division 4 in 2008 and fourth in 2010.
“I think its still a growing sport,” said Reynolds, whose Delton Kellogg squad competes in the Southwestern Michigan Competitive Cheer Conference. “More people are getting involved in it, more kids are wanting to do gymnastics earlier… It’s good for some of the smaller schools who don’t have a gymnastic outlet. It’s just girls are making more of a name for themselves.”