Franklin Regional's cheerleaders work on rebuilding squad
As a pounding beat echoes off the gymnasium walls, a cluster of sweaty teenage girls stops to catch their breath, their hair pulled back in messy ponytails and their make-up far from perfect.
After nearly two hours of tumbling and tossing, jumping and cheering, they're bruised and exhausted.
And they're not done yet.
Because their 4 p.m. practice was relocated and rescheduled yet again, the cheerleaders carry their bulky practice mats up and down stairs.
They're tired. Wednesday's classes -- and another two-hour practice -- stand between Franklin Regional's competitive cheerleading squad and a 4:30 a.m. flight to Orlando to compete in the National High School Cheerleading Championship.
As they line up to start the final run for the day of their 2 1/2 minute routine, coach Cassy Fisher isn't just watching for precise, sharp movements. She's looking for something else.
"Attitude!" Fisher calls out sharply when she sees some girls not focusing.
"You know better than to act like this."
If they didn't know about the right attitude before, they do now.
Nothing to cheer about
For this squad, the 2011-12 season hasn't been solely about bringing a national championship back to Murrysville -- it's been about redemption, about proving themselves.
Twelve months ago, the group was suspended, without a coach and stained with a bad reputation.
Several of the older girls were accused of bullying and having bad attitudes, and no one -- from the coaching staff to the squad to parents -- was communicating about it, Fisher said.
"Our team fell apart," junior Dominique Weakland said. "We weren't leaving our problems at the door -- we were fighting them on the mats. We wanted to come back this year and show the community that we're better than that."
It's a shared sentiment as the girls get comfortable on the gym floor to chat after practice. Like any group of teenage girls, they fight, but they view each other as family, as sisters.
Turning things positive
Last Monday, the 15 teens hosted a send-off performance as a thank-you to the family, friends and community members who supported the squad throughout the past year. They performed their routine twice, hitting every lift, toss and tumble on beat.
Last weekend, the group placed ninth in its division during the Universal Cheerleading Association national cheerleading championship. Last year, the group missed nationals, Fisher said.
Fisher, who was the assistant coach last year, took over the squad in July and held tryouts -- two months later than usual. Typically, the competitive season begins in June and ends in February, giving the girls just three months off.
They don't spend the whole nine months perfecting that competition routine. Members of the competitive squad join the other squads on the sidelines at football and basketball games - it's a requirement set down by the Universal Cheerleading Association, a national governing body for competitive cheerleading.
"People don't realize how hard it is to be a cheerleader," said Brianna Fine, the lone senior on the squad.
"In 2 minutes and 30 seconds we can run ... tumble, do stunts and cheer. It's a lot harder than what people who don't believe it's a real sport think."
Hard work and determination
Don't tell these girls that cheerleading isn't a sport - it's one of their biggest pet peeves. Like other athletes, they have to do extensive weight training - it's not easy to toss a cheerleader in the air, or to be caught once you're thrown.
Just ask eighth-grader Morgan Dibert, a "flyer" who had to develop the poise to balance on her teammates' hands and has to trust the other girls to catch her as she free-falls through the air.
"I want people to realize competitive cheer is not just standing on the sidelines," Dibert said.
"They're lifting girls, holding us above their heads. People don't give us that credit when they see us cheering at sporting events."
Cheerleading is different than other sports, the girls said. Just like there's no crying in baseball, there's no do-overs in cheerleading, said junior Challon Fisher, the coach's younger sister.
"We put all we have out there," Challon Fisher said. "We don't have a chance to make up a play or go to the coach in the middle of a routine. It's make it or break it."
There are no timeouts or chances to make a comeback during competition, Fine said.
"We have to hit it perfect every time," Fine said. "It's a boost of confidence when we do it."
The girls also get a boost from their fans. During last week's send-off performance, they fed off the energy of the 200-plus parents and friends cheering from the bleachers.
The support means a lot to the girls and their coach. There's a stereotype for cheerleaders, said Weakland, 16, of Export, and being a cheerleader isn't the same as it is in Hollywood. They aren't mean girls, they don't dress "sleazy," Weakland said. They can't let their grades drop - Cassy Fisher said the cheerleaders' grades are among the top for athletes - and they don't all date football players.
Not everyone realizes that, Weakland said. It's something the girls said they have talked with their coach about extensively this year.
"I've told them just give them smiles and kill them with kindness," Cassy Fisher said of the attitude she's worked to instill in her girls.
"It makes me feel so good that I can make a difference in even one kid's life."
As an alumna of the squad, Cassy Fisher knows it's not just about winning titles and nailing routines. She remembers watching many of the girls who are on the team now looking up to her when she was a teenager.
It's something the current squad kept in mind when they practiced at Newlonsburg Elementary earlier this year.
"We do this for the little girls watching in the windows at Newlonsburg," Challon Fisher said. "Most of them grow up wanting to be a cheerleader. We're their role models, and we have to act like it."