Mustangs hold the crowd in the pompons of their hand.
Lakewood Ranch High's cheerleaders are used to performing to make sure the spotlight is focused on someone else.
But on Aug. 1-4 at the Universal Cheerleading Association camp at the Hyatt Regency in Sarasota, things were different. All eyes were focused on the Mustangs, who were front and center.
"We are mostly here not to show our skills and abilities, but to get the school hyped up," said Taylor Folkers, the captain of the school's varsity cheer team. "It's more about how big your smile is, your technique and how tight (the routines) are."
That changes when the cheer teams enters competitions like the ones at the Universal Cheerleading Association camp. Folkers said the intensity increases during those events.
"That's when we are able to show our skills and a lot of the talent we have," Folkers said. "People get to cheer us on for a change."
The Mustangs showed plenty of skill while the varsity and junior varsity teams performed a game day routine, camp routine, band chant, sideline chant and cheer for the judges. Lakewood Ranch's varsity team placed first for its camp routine and second for its game day routine while its junior varsity team placed first for both the game day and camp routines.
Head Coach Sherri Haber is thrilled her cheerleaders are back in action after last season's competitive cheering schedule was cut short due to the pandemic. Fortunately, she has girls who are or have been members of local competitive cheer teams, such as Florida Top Dog All-Stars, which helps them improve the team's tumbling and stunts.
It can be hard, though, when the crowds aren't able to attend games because of health concerns related to the pandemic.
On Aug. 20 at Lakewood Ranch High's football field, cheerleader Rain Hanson shook her pom pons and smiled. She looked around at all the people in the stands for the school's Kickoff Classic game. When some high school football teams in the region had games postponed due to a spike in COVID-19, the Mustangs' festivities went forward.
"I can't believe there's so many people here," Hanson said to Folkers as they stood on the track surrounding the field.
Hanson and Folkers remember last season when the cheerleaders had to adjust to a much quieter atmosphere at games with stands not being as packed as in previous years. However, this was different and they plenty of reasons to raise spirits with their talent.
There was such a buzz in the crown, after their first cheer, Folkers had to gather her teammates, telling them to be louder so they could be heard over the volume of the student section, band and crowd.
That would have been a challenge to embrace, but the game was canceled a few minutes later when thunderstorms approached the area. Spirit would have to be put on hold.
The Lakewood Ranch cheerleaders can't wait. After an abnormal year, Folkers said her teammates are motivated more than ever.
"I think we're coming around, and it'll be good," Folkers said. "We've had to definitely talk about all of our games and the things going on at Lakewood Ranch more than ever."
The success at the cheerleading event has primed them after the intense competition. Haber said those cheerleading competitions have become more intense.
"It's a lot more daunting and the tumbling is much higher and more difficult than before," she said.
Some "flyers" can end up more than 10 feet in the air during a stunt.
Haber said her team has an abundance of talent as it heads into this year's performance and competitive schedules. The competitive season for cheerleaders culminates with the state competition.
"This is a very highly qualified squad," Haber said. "There's honestly no reason if they have their heads in it and have a good ethic that they shouldn't win state."
It's a different world from the task of raising spirit along a sideline.
Folkers said the keys to a winning routine include having the hardest stunts and that means members of the team must be dedicated and have positive attitudes.
"We have a lot of talented girls, but I think if we work together, we could be even better than we are now," said Sophia Colombo, who is a junior and co-captain of the cheerleading team. "Sometimes we have problems working together and listening and talking, but we all work through it together. I think that's the most important thing, to be able to work through it together no matter what's going on. If it's COVID-19, if someone's injured on the team, we have someone step in. Keeping a positive attitude has definitely made us one of the best teams around here and has made us able to keep the crowd going."
Whether it's competing or flipping for the crowd, the Mustangs are looking forward to a successful season.
"It's nervewracking, but it's fun when I do well at it," sophomore varsity cheerleader Meredith Beck said of the acrobatics. "I usually get nervous when I do it at football games, but it's worth it."
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