LIBERTY — Cheerleading is a pretty big deal in Casey County.
So big that at the Rebels’ last home football game, there were more cheerleaders on the sidelines — 25 — than football players, even with senior Cody Denson wearing shoulder pads instead of carrying a megaphone.
So big that a member of last year’s squad, Jordan Ellison, was good enough to make the University of Kentucky’s best-in-the-country cheerleading unit, an achievement on par with a local boy’s hoops star being good enough to play for the basketball Cats. That Casey squad placed third in the state in the large co-ed division competing against much larger schools with much richer cheerleading traditions
So big that this year’s group might even be better. They peformed Saturday at the regional Universal Cheerleading Association competition in Gatlinburg, Tenn. — the first out-of-state competition in school history — where they scored well enough to earn their way into the UCA national finals at Disney World in Orlando in February.
“Cheerleading is a sport at Casey County,” says Kelly Forbes, one of the cheer coaches. “It isn’t at most other places around here but it’s starting to happen all over and Casey County is one of the leaders.”
Indeed, Casey is ahead of the curve. Beginning next year, the Kentucky High School Athletic Association will officially recognize cheerleading as a sport, a long, hard-fought victory for cheerleading’s cheerleaders.
“I’ve always felt cheerleading was a sport because you have to be pretty athletic to do some of the things they do,” says Casey athletic director Victor Black. “They work as hard as any program we’ve got. I don’t think people realize how physically demanding it is, and that there’s a lot of danger involved in it.”
Not your father’s cheerleaders
“My dad was saying just the other night, ‘Back when I was in school, we had eight girls who ran out on the floor and yelled ‘Go Casey!’ Now, you’ve got 26 cheerleaders and all you care about is going to the nationals.’”
That’s junior Ali Thompson, a second-year cheerleader known as a “flyer” because her 100-pound frame is the right weight to be sent sailing 25 feet in the air by the squad’s seven cheer boys.
While Casey’s squad still does the standard sideline cheers at football and basketball games, rah-rahing the crowd to rally ‘round the home team is hardly the group’s primary focus. Their mission is perfecting the floor routines that shows off the full range of their talents — dynamic gymnastics, well-oiled sychronicity and high-flying aerials — because that is what they are judged on in competitions.
“In our (two hour) practices, we maybe spend 15 minutes on sideline cheers and sometimes not even that because we just run out of time,” explains senior co-captain Whitney Lawhorn.
Coach Susan Stringer puts the squad’s single-minded dedication to its floor routine a different way, one that shows how cheerleading in Casey County is gaining equal footing with the more established, traditional athletic pursuits.
“We always like to say our first commitment is to supporting our teams, but the flipside of that is we are our own team and we have our own sport,” Stringer says.
Competing at a high level requires a lot of work. There is practice at least four days a week, with extra sessions on weekends if the gym is available. Thursdays are especially rigorous. It starts at 4 p.m. with sessions with pros from Somerset Elite Training Center, followed by helping young kids develop skills (which helps the squad pay its way) and ending after 9 p.m when regular practice is over.
Though Stinger and Forbes are former cheerleaders, their experience predates the co-ed era and they need outside help coaching all the cheer power that is now at their disposal. Current UK cheerleader Tim Greyling was on hand last week to help the squad fine-tune the routine it is performing this weekend in Gatlinburg, a routine he helped choreograph.
“You want people to be attracted to you, even when you’re just standing there,” Greyling barks out, coaching that smiley, cheerleader-y thing called “pepping.” Minutes later, he advised some to “turn down that swag a little bit” because obvious strutting can be a turn-off to judges.
“They’re pretty good,” he offers. “They’re right on track to getting to where they need to be.”