In only its second year, the Lakers competitive cheer team is finding success at both the local and state level.
As they stand in waiting, the moment seems to become all too real for members of the Windermere Prep competitive cheer team.
In just minutes, the Lakers will take the floor to perform in front of the large crowd at the state competition at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center on the campus of the University of Florida.
For the team’s three seniors — Emily Work, McKenzie Fraley and Bailey Leasure — this is the last hoorah, and they know it.
“Before we took the mat, I know that Bailey and I started crying — we had a very emotional little moment, because I don’t think it really hit us that this was it,” Fraley said. “We had such a high and low season where everything was so chaotic and dramatic.
“I started crying, and I was trying to tell everyone how much I loved them, and then Bailey started crying, and then other girls on the team started crying,” she said. “I just had to be quiet, because I was like, ‘We’re literally going to take the mat in two minutes and we are sobbing.’”
The girls recovered nicely — regardless of the pre-routine cry — as the Lakers finished in fourth place. It’s an impressive feat for a cheer team that is only in its second year.
No one expected the Lakers to finish the competitive season the way they did. It’s what made the accomplishment that much more satisfying for coach Kari Land. The squad finished in the top three in regionals before going on to pass through the semis and make it to the finals.
“It was an incredible day and an incredible journey,” Land said. “We had a lot of things that we went through leading up to it — which every team goes through challenges and hurdles — but we did it, and the girls were ecstatic. Last year was a great year with it being our first year, but we went up to unheard of levels for our second year.”
It takes most schools years to reach this level of success, but Windermere Prep did it with quick precision, despite some growing pains along the way.
Although some, such as Work, had been competing with organizations like Top Gun, many of the girls who tried out for the Lakers’ first season had no prior cheer experience.
But, that inexperience from last year may have helped the Lakers, Leasure said.
“The start of last year, we didn’t know what to expect and how it would go,” Leasure said. “A lot of teams had seen our routine from last year, and they knew us going into the competition this year. But they really kind of underestimated us. From last year to this year, we learned how to push ourselves.”
Pushing themselves to the level they reached this year required a lot of time and patience on everyone’s part early on, especially since practices were a bit unorthodox to start.
Because the program was new, there were no facilities set in place. The girls had to practice in the school’s cafeteria or out on the basketball court at a friend’s house. There also was the issue of not having enough mats.
“We had a lot of things that we went through leading up to it — which every team goes through challenges and hurdles — but we did it, and the girls were ecstatic. Last year was a great year with it being our first year, but we went up to unheard of levels for our second year.”
— Kari Land
“You have to practice on nine panels, and we only have two, so that kind of limits us to what we can do with our routine,” Work said. “And the ceilings in there (the cafeteria) — if I was to put Kenzie in the air, she touches the ceiling.”
“Last time we were in there, I hit the ceiling two times,” Fraley replied with a laugh.
Regardless of the practice space and other challenges, the trio said the obstacles have brought the team closer together. Adversity is often the test that pushes teams to either one of two conclusions: They break and fall apart, or they band together and become stronger.
Luckily for Land and her girls, the future of Lakers cheerleading is pretty bright.
“What goals we had in mind for this year, we exceeded them,” Land said. “All we can do is get better each year and add a little bit of encouragement to the girls. Now that they saw what can happen and how close we were to making the top three, I think it’ll encourage them more to do bigger things next year.”
And despite the trio of seniors not knowing what lies ahead, they do know one thing that’s certain — they never will forget their time at Windermere Prep.
“Even though we might not all cheer at college, we always feel like we had those special bonds on the cheer team, and we will always be cheerleaders at heart,” Leasure said.