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Cheerleading is in fact a sport, and Mountlake Terrace has the team to prove it

By Steve Willits

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Column by Steve Willits | HAWKEYE Alumnus
Photos by TK Johnson | HAWKEYE

Congratulations to one of the toughest and most resilient sports teams at Mountlake Terrace for an incredible performance at a state tournament last weekend. It sounds crazy and trust me when I say that I didn’t expect to be describing the cheer squad as “tough” or “resilient”. I even had my doubts prior to working on this article as to whether or not cheer is a sport. That was before my experience around this team last week and the time I spent watching them and learning about their story. They’ve earned my respect and I now know that cheer is definitely a sport.

Never did I think that I would be attending a high school state cheerleading competition but that is exactly what I did on Saturday February 1st at Alaska Airlines Arena on the University of Washington campus and I came away very impressed. Congratulations to the Mountlake Terrace Hawks Cheer Squad on a 6th Place state finish in their category.

The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA)  has been hosting Cheerleading State Championships since 2006 and Mountlake Terrace had never qualified for this event until this year. In fact never had a Terrace team even tried to qualify for state. Teams that want to participate at the State Championships must compete at other sanctioned competitions and get a qualifying score of 65 points or else they are not eligible. After talking to a handful of people including the WIAA Tournament Director and the Head Coach of Meadowdale’s State Championship team, I found out a school’s first year of trying to qualify for state is generally a learning experience and more often than not they are not able to achieve the 65 points that are needed. That wasn’t the case for the Hawks!

The Terrace team initially appeared to be following the same path of many other first year schools that have tried to qualify for state only to come up short. At their first competition of the year, the Hawks only scored 39 points. They improved their score a little at their second competition by scoring 41 points but were still far short of the points required to qualify. The Hawks then went to a third competition and scored exactly 65 points which gave them the needed state qualifying score.

Meadowdale won their third state championship in the last 5 years on Saturday and even their coach, Kimberly Berry was impressed that the Hawks were able to qualify. “Amazing, going from a squad that hasn’t competed to making it to state their first time out, that never happens. A lot of teams will go out, try to qualify for state and when they don’t (qualify) they give up and they quit” said Berry. “They (Terrace) just kept coming back and back, their scores got better and they made it”.

Another obstacle that the ladies have had to overcome all year is the fact that they have never been able to compete with all 12 of their team members at one time during a competition. I never realized that cheer could be such a brutal sport. The Hawks team has been plagued with injuries all season long.  Three different girls have had concussions not to mention a handful of other injuries and ailments that include neck and back sprains, a couple of appendicitis, and the occasional winter flu bug. Concussions have become such a common occurrence that Joey Owens who wears the MTHS “Herkey” mascot even made a special “Concussion Queen” helmet that he presents to a cheerleader to wear whenever one of them is injured. The girls seem to be able to joke about it but that is one helmet that we certainly hope isn’t needed very often.

The team even came close to losing two more members during warm ups on Saturday morning as one teammate (Joy Gardner) was kicked in the nose and another one (Taylor Douglas) got hit hard in the mouth. You can’t deny that this is a sport and that these ladies are athletes when you hear about their injuries and the way that they battle through the pain and agony while striving to be successful.

The always impressive and high scoring flip stunts require four girls each and losing even one of your 12 members means that you have one less group of stunts. The fact that the Hawks haven’t had more than 11 people at any of their competitions makes their accomplishments that much more impressive.

My first reaction upon hearing that our cheer squad had qualified for state was to be excited for them. I didn’t really know any of these young ladies, their families or their coach prior to the weekend but that didn’t mean I wasn’t already aware of the efforts of the support that they provide to other athletes. I see this group at almost all of the Terrace games that I cover and they are always cheering on the Hawks’ teams through the good times and the bad. It only seemed appropriate that a team that is always on the sidelines during other sporting events would finally get a chance to step out of the shadows and have the spotlight shine on them. This is a special group and they’ve earned the right to be the focal point for once. This was their moment.

Morgan Arbuckle, Megan Bruce, Taylor Douglas, Olivia Driscoll, Joy Gardner, MacKenzie Gardner, Courtney Hammer, Brittany Kinsella, Marissa Mason, Samantha Meadows, Taylor Rash and Sarah Smith are the members of this year’s Mountlake Terrace Cheer Squad and they were outstanding during their two-and-a-half minute routine at the state competition (note: Samantha was not able to perform at state due to a concussion however she was there supporting her team). As much as I enjoyed watching the performance, the most interesting and fascinating part of the experience occurred afterward when I got to interview the team, their Coach Jessica Bos, and a few of the parents. By the time I left the arena, I had an entirely new respect for this over-achieving team and for cheer in general.

Coach’s Perspective

The first person I talked to after the performance was the Terrace Coach, Jessica Bos who also happens to be a 2004 MTHS alum and former Hawks cheerleader. Bos was very happy with the performance of her team. “They did so good, they really showed all of the hard work that they did, I was very happy,” said Bos.

You get the impression relatively quickly when talking to Bos that she has a passion for what she is doing and that she is proud of her team’s success. Bos cheered on competition teams prior to when she cheered at Terrace however she never got to do anything similar when wearing the Hawks uniform. I asked Bos if it bothered her that she never had the same opportunities 10 years ago. “Yes but I’m here now and I get to live (vicariously) through them” said Bos.

Bos seemed to recognize that the true accomplishment of the year was just getting to the state tournament and that everything else was a bonus. “We didn’t say that we need to get first place, I didn’t want to set expectations and freak them out”. We all had the same expectations, we made it to state in our first year of competing and we were very happy with that. We wanted to come here to learn what state was all about and see what the top girls are doing. It was more of a learning experience and about us having fun and enjoying the memories that we are making.”

This is Bos’ second season as the head coach and if she has her way, this won’t be the last time that the Hawks perform at state. “Once you’ve competed, it’s what you strive for, it’s what you want to do. Games are fun but competitions are all about you as a cheerleader.”

Getting back to state next year won’t be easy. Eight of the current 12 team members on the team are seniors which means only four of the girls will be back next year. That isn’t anything new for Bos though as there are currently only four girls that were on the squad last year. The difference is that next year she hopes to potentially expand the team. “I’d like to have 16, especially with all of the injuries that we’ve had.  It would be nice to have those extra girls to still be able to do some of the big stunts. If I had 16 girls, all of them would be stunting.  Not having them stunting can be kind of boring to watch.”

The other thing that Bos pointed out was the fact that the school administration has been very supportive this year. “They have been really awesome, they’ve been congratulating us and wishing us luck before our competitions”.

Cheer Squad Perspective

After interviewing Bos, I made my way up into the stands of the arena where 11 of the Terrace cheer squad members were sitting (Taylor Rash was the only one not present) after their performance and were now spectators watching the other teams get their own turn in the spotlight. I really wasn’t sure what to expect as I approached the team. I’m used to interviewing one or two athletes at a time after a competition but never an entire team. I wasn’t sure how receptive a group of teenage girls would be to some old guy with an audio recorder asking a bunch of questions, especially since I didn’t know what kind of a mood they would be in and if they were tired from having just cheered a few minutes earlier.

What I discovered very quickly was that I was interviewing a group of young ladies who are very energetic, friendly and fun. They were a positive group that provided me with one of the most enjoyable interviews that I’ve ever conducted. They are a team that I am very proud to have representing my alma mater and community at an event or in any public setting.

My first question that I asked the team was for their thoughts on how well they felt they performed at state. Almost immediately they all replied in unison that they were very happy. Not a surprising answer after talking to their coach. They all seemed to feel as though this was a successful conclusion to a journey that included a lot of hard work and sacrifice, much like any other team experiences when competing during a season. I should note that this was their final competition of the year but that they will continue to cheer at other sporting events.

Samantha Meadows was the one teammate that wasn’t able to perform on Saturday but was still there to support her team. “Even though I didn’t compete today, I had a really good time watching my teammates.I’m proud of them because we’ve gotten so far”.

Joy Gardner put the team’s efforts into their proper prospective. “Through the whole season, it’s just proved to us that if we really work hard for something, we can really achieve anything”.

Some of the seniors spoke about the process, how getting to state had been talked about in the past and about finally getting the chance to do it in their final year. “I like how we made Terrace history, when we come back (as alums) we can say ‘that was our (MTHS) first year of competing at state” said Brittney Kinsella.

They also talked about the adversity, mainly the injures and what  getting to state has meant to them as a team, especially knowing that the odds weren’t always in their favor. “I’m just really glad we made it because we’ve worked so hard this year and we’ve had so many obstacles.  We’ve made it here, we are together and we’ve become so close” said Senior Sarah Smith.

Another senior, Megan Bruce had similar feelings. “Our team has grown as a family this year with all of the injuries, we’ve been really supportive of each other. I’m really proud of how we got here” said Bruce.

Taylor Douglas also made reference to how special getting to state was knowing that they never had all 12 teammates performing together a one of their competitions. “It’s a great experience. Even though we haven’t had a full team, all of us together is what made us get to state in the first place. I’m just proud”.

Courtney Hammer reflected on her feelings about the moment. “It’s been a really good experience.  I’m just so happy and that we got to go to state on my first year on the team.”

The non seniors talked about how they can use the experience as a chance to improve. “I think it‘s a great experience, next year we can come back even better” said Junior Morgan Arbuckle.

Sophomore MacKenzie Gardner also seemed to be thinking about next year. “We are making mental notes about everything”

The team also talked quite a bit about how supportive they are of each other and about how close they have become through their experiences together.

“We are a family and our team has grown so close over the past year” said Marissa Mason.

“I’ve got 11 new best friends and I couldn’t be more proud of all of them” said Olivia Driscoll.

One of the other topics was in regards to whether or not cheer is a sport. The girls definitely had plenty of strong opinions about that and immediately talked about the injuries and how rough it can be. “It is definitely a sport. In football they throw a ball and in cheerleading we throw people. If you try and catch a ball and miss it, you can just try again. But if you let your friend fall and don’t catch her, she will get hurt” said one of the ladies.

They talked quite a bit about how each time one of their teammates gets hurt, it forces them to change their entire routine as girls have to then shift to different positions, very similar to other team sports.  The particular routine that they performed at state had to be changed just two days prior when they realized that Samantha would not be able to perform due to her concussion.

We discussed the support that they have received from MTHS this year. They were excited about how Activities Coordinator Kim Stewart showed up to support their performance and brought them cheeseburgers to have after they were finished.

They mentioned that certain groups and teams have been more supportive of them than others. “The girl’s basketball team is super supportive” said one cheerleader. They also singled out volleyball, ASB and football as being team’s that have been in the stands cheering them on. Some of them though seemed a little disappointed that more people haven’t been in the stands. After all, this is the group that normally is supporting other teams.

“I feel that if more people came and saw what we do, they would be more supportive and say ‘wow, Cheer is actually a sport’. They see us at assemblies and it is mostly dance. I feel that if they came and watched (at state), they would see that it is more stunts and other physical things” said one team member”.

Another squad member said “It is the one thing that we do all year that is for us. It’s not to support other people”.  I couldn’t agree with her more and hopefully people will catch on in the future and show up when these ladies compete.

The ladies also showed off their fun side during our interview. I asked if they have any superstitions as a team and found out all about their lucky feet. Coach Jessica Bos gave each of them a pair of lucky socks to wear in their competition. The socks have the word “lucky “printed in red on the bottom and they wear their “lucky socks” during each competition. The socks tend to bleed every time they are worn and therefore the word “lucky” ends up stained on their shoes and feet.  Brittany was even kind enough (I say sarcastically) to take off her sweaty shoe and share the proof with me which got a good laugh from her teammates. Most of the girls also bragged to me that part of the “lucky” superstition is that most of them refused to wash their socks until after the state competition although Sarah did admit that she broke rank and has washed her socks. This means that most of the team has worn the socks in four straight competitions without cleaning them. Fortunately the judges don’t deduct points for foot hygiene, or lack thereof.

Morgan Arbuckle also tried helping her team’s good fortune by giving everyone a lucky gold fish. The girls seem to think the gold fish may have helped although I’m not so sure after they told me that all of the fish have since died. I questioned the logic on this one but one of the girls defended it by saying that the fish were all still alive up until they qualified for state and therefore they did in fact provide the team with some luck.

The other superstition that this team has is that the girls do not “split poles” when walking together. In other words, if they pass by a pole or pillar in a room, they must all walk on the same side of it. These rituals sound crazy but who is going to argue with the only Terrace cheer squad to ever qualify for a state competition. As a current popular television commercial proclaims when talking about sports superstitions, it’s only weird if it doesn’t work.

Parents Perspective

I also decided that I wanted to include the parents in this article. Parents for all kinds of sports sacrifice their weekends for their kid’s events but I was even more curious about this group. After all, their daughters’ performance was a total of two-and-a-half minutes and yet the event from start to end was going to last for over six hours. I figured this group of parents needed to be heard from and they didn’t disappoint.

I went over to the parent section and immediately met Steve and Kris Mason who are Marissa’s mom and dad. They were extremely proud of their daughter and her teammates and picked up some perspective of their own after talking to the coach of another team. “He said that it is a really big deal to make it to state during the first year of competing” said Kris.

Steve and Kris talked about the commitment that goes into cheer that others often don’t think about.  “People don’t realize how dedicated they are. Swimming, wrestling, basketball, tennis and everything else.  It is a big time commitment” said Kris.

Steve then pointed out that there is one big difference in time commitment for cheer that doesn’t apply to other athletes. “It is the only sport that goes all year long. Other sports have seasons. They (cheer) also practice all summer. “

Steve and Kris aslo pointed out that getting a summer job is often difficult for cheer members because of their year round practice schedule.

I also asked the Masons what their thoughts were in regards to the fact that many people question whether or not cheer is a sport. They talked about how Marissa suffered a concussion during cheer which caused her to be limited to the family couch for a week. Kris went on to say that injuries are the norm for their daughter. “She comes home bruised and scrapped up all the time and today (during the state competition) she got kicked in the face”.

One other parent I spoke to was Johnnie Bruce, the father of Megan.  Johnnie had spent years coaching baseball when his kids were younger so I asked him if he thought cheer was a sport.  “Ten years ago I would have never called it a sport but after seeing the athleticism and seeing the injuries that Megan has come home with, yes, they are athletes. It is a sport”.

My Own Perspective

I’ve always respected cheer squads for what they add to the atmosphere of sporting events.  I enjoy seeing how sports can bring a school and the surrounding community together and give everyone something to collectively root for. The energetic ambience of the games and the experiences that the people attending leave with are just as important as the athletic achievements themselves, therefore I’ve appreciated the cheer squad for their participation in that regard.

Where I have failed is to appreciate the actual skills and devotion that these ladies bring to their craft.  That they are athletes in their own right and that they also are constantly striving to make themselves better.  They are athletes too and deserve the same respect that is giving to others. They will certainly get that from me moving forward.

This particular group of 12 ladies went out and did something very special last weekend.  Through hard work and determination they accomplished a goal that many didn’t think they were capable of achieving before the school year started.  They represented Terrace at yet another state tournament and they deserve to be recognized for their outstanding work.  Go Hawks!

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Cheerleading is in fact a sport, and Mountlake Terrace has the team to prove it