- March 14, 2013
Angela Ryan counts off a quick cadence as 20 cheerleaders explode forward in synchronized motion across a padded warehouse floor.
It’s the middle of winter, but the fans are going full blast inside the steel walls of Winter Park’s cheer gym along an industrial road just east of Semoran Boulevard. It’s a tense time for this young group, with only two returning seniors.
They’ve been practicing two hours a day, five days a week in anticipation of the state championship, which they won in 2010 and in 2008, which was the inaugural year of competitive cheerleading.
This Saturday, Feb. 5, they’ll be at Kissimmee’s Silver Spurs Arena looking to capture the title again. A week later, they’ll be at the Universal Cheerleaders Association National Championship.
Ryan, who has led the Winter Park High team as head coach since 1997, said the girls have an equal chance of winning states this year despite losing 10 members to graduation. In their shoes are two freshmen, three sophomores and five juniors.
“This is a very young team. We only have two seniors, so we’re really on a rebuilding year,” Ryan said.
Rebuilding year or not, the Wildcats keep showing off their skills with a recent win in the Orange County Metro Cheerleading competition on Jan. 15 at Dr. Phillips High School.
And they’ve ramped up their state routine this year to stay competitive in the constantly evolving sport.
“We’ve just kind of stepped up with the sport,” Ryan said. “If you maintain the same routine year after year in this sport, you’re not going to continue to be successful.”
This year, the tumbling has become more intricate, the pace has quickened and the partner stunts and pyramids are more challenging, she said. “There’s always something going on. If they’re not in the stunt, they’re tumbling, so everybody’s always doing something.
As the competition in February approaches, the two-hour after-school practices have increased from three days a week to five. But the preparation goes well beyond the physical act of simply practicing the routine. The team does mental exercises where they visualize themselves going through the routine.
Visualizing victory could be the lynchpin to a repeat championship, Ryan said.
“Physically they’re in shape and can do it, but their mind will play tricks on them, so they have to make sure that they do a lot of mental preparation during practice, before practice and after,” Ryan said.
The team also studies videos taken of their practices and competitions, allowing them to see what areas need to be perfected.
Ryan’s face lights up as she recalls the team’s 2010 win.
“They were clearly deserving of the state championship last year. They were the best team. It’s nice to see the hard work pay off,” Ryan said.
Captain Natalie Martinez, 17, is the only senior who has been on this team all four years of high school. A giddy smile spreads across her face when she thinks back a year when her team anxiously awaited the state championship results.
“We were all waiting, holding hands, no one was saying a word and right when they announced it, you just see girls exploding, girls crying, it was fantastic.”
Senior Valencia Singleton, 17, is looking forward to Friday because it will be her first time competing at Nationals after an injury suddenly left her unable to compete with her team.
“I fractured my arm right before competition, and I didn’t get to compete, so I’m actually really excited to get to do it.”
Outside of practices, the girls work out regularly and the majority of them have jobs at Winter Park Cheer Athletics, teaching cheerleading to 4- and 5-year-olds.
“If I’m not doing it, I’m teaching it,” says junior Jessica Norfleet, 16. Jessica used to be a dancer but has given that up in order to cheer daily with the Wildcats.
Juggling school, practices, workouts, tumbling lessons and teaching doesn’t leave these girls with much time in a day to do anything besides eat, breathe and sleep cheerleading.
Junior Lacey King, 17, said it’s a tradeoff between cheerleading and the rest of her life.
“It’s a really large time commitment so sometimes, especially before competitions, you can’t always go out with your friends,” she said. “You want to rest up the night before.”
One of the team’s youngest girls, freshman Lexi Velez, 15, said she’s excited to be on such a high-caliber team. “There’s not really anything I’m nervous about — I think we’re going to do fine,” Lexi said.
Captain Martinez is confident as Friday nears.
“We’ve implemented elite skills from the beginning of the season — last year we got off to a late start. So we have been working on them for longer, which I think sets you up for success.”
Cheer on the Winter Park High School Wildcats at FHSAA Competitive Cheerleading Championship Finals on Saturday, Feb. 5 at the Silver Spurs Arena, 1875 Silver Spur Lane, Kissimmee. Admission is $10 cash. The girls are scheduled to perform at 4:15 p.m.