For most of the members of the North Fort Myers Pop Warner Pee-Wee cheer program, winning national championships isn't new. Two years ago, as Junior Pee-Wees, they won the title.
Still, winning is something that never goes out of style, and two weeks ago, at Disney World in Orlando, the team put together a nearly flawless performance to earn first place in the Small Division Level 1.
The Pee-Wees were one of two North programs that competed at Nationals, along with the Varsity program, which finished sixth.
TOP?ROW: Coach Jen Hardman, Mackenzie Bieber, Maegan Price, Trinity Babcock, Sarah Kelly, Coach Samantha Kelly. MIDDLE?ROW: Makalyn Shuck, Brooke Malone, Haley Tracy, Jasmine Miller, Jr. Coach Destiny Jordan. BOTTOM?ROW: Rachel Best, Aleniah Moore, Ivianna Ivy. NOT?PICTURED: Jr. Coach Dominique Lynch and Coach Cricket Kelly.
Jen Hardman coached the veteran team, with seven previous champions and a few first-year cheerleaders sprinkled in, along with Samantha Kelly and Cricket Kelly as assistants.
"I've enjoyed working with them this year, being responsible for 11 girls instead of everyone," Cricket said, who has been cheer coordinator for many years. "Watching the girls grow, especially the beginners, they've all changed throughout the year. It's been a thrilling year."
Unlike the football teams, which can always play next week, for cheer, the whole season revolves around a 2 minute, 30 second routine in which one mistake can ruin it seconds after it begins.
The journey for the 11-girl team started in local competition in October at the Peace River Conference cheer-offs, where the Pee-Wees finished first. On Thanksgiving weekend, they competed in the Southeast Regionals and not only finished first, but were named Grand Champions.
At nationals, the Red Knights won fairly easily, with only a bobble during a stunt that prevented the performance from being flawless.
"We had a lot of areas that added to our difficulty and that's how we got our high scores. We had a lot of tumbling and triple jumps," Hardman said. "We just tried to hit the difficulty and we cleaned them up for execution."
Cheerleader Sarah Kelly said it was advice from the judges that helped them get to the next level, as well as the old cheer rules.
"The judges told us we needed higher energy at regionals, so we did it at nationals and we won. Our routine is fun and tiring, but after a while you get used to it.," Kelly said, who has won two national titles and finished third last year. "The secret is to always smile because if you make the judges smile, you'll have a good routine."
Rachel Best was emotional about her win, as it was her bobble the team had to overcome. But she learned a lot from the experience.
"When you mess up, you don't get a do-over and you feel it's your fault. But we still won," Best said. "When you go to nationals, it's a great experience. You learn a lot of things such as you can work harder to win,"
The Varsity program also went to Nationals after winning the conference and placing second in regionals. In nationals, a fall during a stunt ended any shot it had for joining the Pee-Wees, but coach Brandy Newmans said that didn't take the shine off an amazing season for a young squad.
"Most of the girls can come back next season. We only have two that will age out. We set goals at the beginning of the season and we all reached our goal to make themselves better cheerleaders," Newmans said.
"Overall, we did good for all the work we did. It's a lot of pressure, but I get through it with my teammates," said cheerleader Rachel Glover. "I had fun this year and plan to come back next year and have more fun."