LAKEWOOD RANCH — Twelve-year-old Zoe Schaeffer never thought about being a cheerleader.
But that all changed two years ago when Zoe’s mom signed her up to be on the East Manatee Bulldogs cheerleading squad.
Zoe wasn’t particularly thrilled about the idea.
“I didn’t really want to, but my mom talked me into it,” Zoe says. “I was nervous, at first, because I didn’t know anyone, and I didn’t know if I would be able to get the routine in time.”
But within one month, those initial fears subsided and Zoe began enjoying her new endeavor.
Now, the Haile Middle School seventh-grader can’t imagine not being a part of the East Manatee Bulldogs Midget cheerleading squad.
“I think I realized it was fun and something I enjoyed doing,” Zoe says.
Zoe and her teammates are preparing for the final chapter in their successful season.
The Bulldogs won the 2012 Southeast Regional Cheer Competition Nov. 24 and earned a berth in the 2012 Pop Warner National Cheer Championships Dec. 7, at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, in Kissimmee.
The squad defeated 13 other teams to win the regional competition — much to the girls’ surprise. They began screaming, crying, jumping up and down and hugging one another upon hearing the news.
“I was really excited and shocked at the same time,” Zoe says. “Your heart kind of drops and you get really excited.”
Twelve-year-old teammate Danielle Bourque agrees.
“I was really surprised,” Danielle says. “All of the teams were really good, so it was exciting to get that first place.”
The squad, which practices three nights a week, is made up of 11 girls ages 11 to 14 years old. Since capturing the regional title, the girls have spent the past two weeks preparing for the Pop Warner National Cheer Competition.
“I think we’re much improved (this season),” coach Samantha Houston says. “We have some girls who have never cheered for us, so to be able to go to nationals is huge.
“We prepare from the beginning of the season either way,” she says. “I think they’re very dedicated. They really want it, and they’ve practiced hard to get it.”
The Bulldogs will compete in the Midget Small Pop Warner Level 2 division against teams from across the nation.
“I expect us to do well,” Houston says. “They’ve done well up to this point, and I think it’ll show even more their hard work and dedication. I just hope they take away (the idea) that hard work isn’t just what you put out. The end result shows you what you’ve done.”
The Bulldogs know the competition will be fierce at the national level, but the squad is looking forward to competing. They will perform a cheer-and-dance routine with stunting in the hopes of winning their first national cheerleading championship.
“It would mean everything to me,” Zoe says of being a national champion. “Cheerleading is the other half of my heart, so it would really mean a lot.”
Contact Jen Blanco at [email protected].