- December 20, 2021
EAST COUNTY — A lack of funding kept the Braden River High School varsity cheerleading team home from summer camp, but it couldn’t contain their cheering.
In the middle of a dead-end residential street in the East County, a group of 27 cheerleaders began a barefoot chant.
Far away from a stadium, beside cars, mailboxes and homes, the girls bounced off the scorching concrete and cheered for Pirates fans to get up and clap their hands.
From Aug. 6 through Aug. 8, the Braden River High School varsity cheerleading team held its annual summer camp, at which cheerers learned high-flying stunts and built the trust required to steady them, at the home of Jennifer Murnane, the mother of Jillian, a junior on the squad.
“Being home, we were able to focus all of our spirit on the team,” said Allison Malcom, a senior captain. “On a cheerleading squad, there can be a lot of cliques. Home camp has gotten us closer than an away camp ever would.”
Murnane and Erin Buchanan, the Pirates first-year varsity cheerleading coach, planned for a home camp as soon as they learned the Universal Cheerleaders Association (UCA), a group of college cheerleaders who teach high school squads complex stunts and dances, offered it.
Two summers ago, the team traveled to the Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club for camp. This year, however, UCA trainers came to Braden River. The camp went beyond the traditional.
“Jennifer and I sat down and thought, ‘What can we do?’” Buchanan said.
“We were disappointed we couldn’t go away. This was our opportunity to gel and have fun before season really gets going. But, then, we thought we could stay home and do something better.”
For three days, UCA instructors taught the Pirates tricks at Braden River High School. They learned new material, sideline maneuvers and cheers the team will use at football games.
By night, however, the cheerers came to Murnane’s home for two overnight slumber parties, one of which was a Miss USA-themed murder-mystery party, and plenty of cheering.
Murnane got creative and bold — she banished her husband and son for the week so the girls could have free reign of her house — because she felt the team could do more than just train during the day.
Cheerleading is a self-funded activity, for which the team raises money through fundraisers and parent donations for costs, such as home dinners and an end-of-year banquet.
But that money never covered cheer camp, so Braden River Athletic Director Bob Bowling would reach into his athletic-department funds and contribute toward expenses.
At the end of last school year, Manatee County Superintendent Rick Mills asked individual schools to contribute money from their internal funds to help trim a budget deficit from the year before. Braden River gave 14.3% of its internal funds, or $35,258 — a figure that included athletic-department funds.
Little money remained for cheerleading.
“Cheering is not as high on the priority list as football,” Murnane said. “With little money this year, it was either we do this (home camp) or there would be no camp.”
A three-day home camp costs about $200 less per cheerleader than traveling to camp. Many cheerleaders raised the money through sponsorships from East County businesses.
On the first night at Murnane’s house, the cheerers dressed in costumes — colorful clown wigs, cowboy boots and hats and chef attire — and starred in a Miss USA pageant.
Each cheerleader received a pre-assigned role and represented a state.
They had a few minutes to stand on “stage” — at the front of the living room — to perform the talent assigned to their character.
One girl, who represented Mississippi, mock yodeled. Another, a rugged skateboarder, broke her nail on her skateboard. A third girl wielded an orange plastic gun and vowed, “I am skilled with the pistol.”
Upstairs lay a dead body, and one of the models was the murderer, Murnane told the girls.
The cheerers seemed to pay no attention to the murderer among them, as they clapped along to “Don’t Stop Believing” and ate stiletto-shaped cupcakes.
They later changed into swimsuits and pajamas, for other portions of the Miss USA pageant competition.
Murnane asked the cheerers-turned-contestants to vote for a top performer based on merit — not biased friendships.
Camp marked the first time the cheer squad has come together since tryouts in April, and Buchanan and Murnane want to build a sense of team. Practices began this week.
“It is a huge, huge thing before season starts to have people get along,” Buchanan said. “During certain cheers, (girls) have to trust the people under them.”
At away camps, teams compete against other schools. At home camp, the team competed against itself.
“A lot of girls who are normally not outspoken spoke,” said Kayla McNulty, a pink-wigged senior captain. “We need everybody if we’re going to have more school spirit this year.”
With that, the cheerleaders climbed the stairs to solve a murder.
Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected]rver.com.