‘It’s not just rah-rash and pompons anymore’
By Julie Gerke
Jacksonville – Most of the members of the Jacksonville High School (JHS) cheerleading squad have been together since middle school, learning cheers, practicing tosses and tumbling, and supporting each other through thick and thin.
Their teamwork paid off early, with a backpack full ofIESA state title wins.
So last summer, when members learned a “game day” routine for cheer competitions at the high school level, they knew right away they had a winner.
“The day we learned the routine, we thought we could do it,” said captain Claire Burrus, 17, a senior who has spent four years on the JHS squad.
“We knew we could hit that and excel,” added Isla Willis, a sophomore who is captain of the JV team.
They did — bringing home the high school’s first-ever state title from the Illinois Cheerleading Coaches Association (ICCA) tournament held in January at the BoS Center in Springfield. The squad competed in the IHSA sectional tournament but did not advance.
Cheer competitions are divided by school size (small, medium, large), whether the team is coed, and in several performance divisions. This year’s JHS squad is all-girl, but previous squads have included boys — including the team’s current coach, DeVante White, now a Jacksonville Middle School teacher who cheered for JHS and later at Lindenwood University. Both assistant coaches, Robyn Maher and Michaelene Mays, also have a background in JHS cheer.
The ICCA win came in the game day division, new this year, which focuses on how a squad cheers for its team and revs up a crowd during a game: audience participation, strong motions, loud voices and overall sharpness. The JHS routine included signs, pompons, a megaphone and a large “J” flag.
White described it as a division that focuses on the “fundamentals of cheerleading.”
ICCA tourneys follow the same rules and challenges as IHSA tourneys, White said, and usually involve the same schools. Cheerleading has evolved over decades, now recognized as an athletic endeavor.
At the state tourney, the squad was on the receiving end of cheers from members of the school’s football and basketball teams, who showed up to support the athletes whose job is to support them.
White said crossover support has gained steam at JHS, with some members of other sports teams participating in specialized practices with the cheerleading squad.
Because the squad cheers for a variety of teams, their “season” is almost an entire school year. So, by the time the season ends, it’s time to hold tryouts for the next year’s team, and then start practices that run through the summer. The squad’s own competition season runs from November to February, so team members practice three days a week, plus a game day, plus weekend gym time.
Practices focus not only on routines and precision skills, but on building strength and stamina. The cheerleaders also are required to run at least a mile a day.
All that is on top of other activities, such as academic groups, some team sports (some squad members also are members of the J’ettes dance team, or play basketball, soccer or tennis), and homework and family obligations.
“It’s not just rah-rahs and pompons anymore,” White said.
The roster includes Claire Burrus, captain; Cara Butler; Madison Davis; Bella Summers; Elle VanNoy; Julia Zoellner, co-captain; Olivia Stewart; Annemarie Fraas; Ella Rajaguru; Gabi Frye; Isla Willis, JV captain; Emma Guidish; Chloe Kuhn; Regan VanNoy; Lauren Maher; DeVante White, head coach; and Robyn Maher and Michaelene Mays, assistant coaches.