Cheer for the year

Daily Pilot

She stands in the gym at Costa Mesa High School, wearing her new varsity letterman's jacket.

It was a small award given to her for a monumental achievement: becoming the California State Cheer Coach of the Year.

Of the some 1,200 high schools across the Golden State, Koreen Johnson took the honors over the weekend, earning the bigger award that goes with it: a free trip to Hawaii for two in February next year, where the Aloha Spirit Cheerleading Championship will take place.

"It's going to be fun," says Johnson, 38, a 1990 graduate of Costa Mesa High School and former cheerleader. "I make something like 10 cents an hour. I think that's what I averaged it out to one day.

"I do this more for the love of coaching."

But the relatively low salary is paying off dividends. The cheerleading coach, after all, is the backbone of the squad, and this 36-member team is doing quite well.

A few months ago, it earned the National School Spirit Award and was recognized by the board of education of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District.

For Johnson, however, garnering such an award involved a lot of paperwork. She spent hours filling out documents so that her squad could compete and qualify. She put the gym on the back burner and sat down to the desk, her eyes focused on nothing but a computer.

In the end, her squad emerged victorious.

And, for the record, it was an award that factored not only in the squad members' cheers, but also their scholastic success along with hours of volunteerism in the community.

"There's this misconception out there that cheerleaders are just a bunch of airheads who are just out there to wear short skirts and look cute, but they're very intelligent, athletic and giving," she said. "They do a lot for the community."

And if there's anybody who would know, it would be Johnson, who's been a cheerleading coach for 10 years — not exactly a simple task when you consider the different sorts of teenage personalities she has to contend with, she said.

If just being a teenager is hard enough, try managing a group of girls of all shapes, sizes and brain chemistries.

But at the end of the day, she goes home to her own squad: her husband, Kyle, 39, and two children, Kevin, 9, and Kyra, 6, both of whom attend Sonora Elementary School.

Just a few days ago, Johnson received word that she will now be considered for the National High School Coach of the Year. She'll know the outcome of that award some time over the summer.

Tammy Van Vleet, director of Golden State Spirit Assn., which chose the winner of the state coach of the year, said Johnson exemplifies all the qualities of a fantastic coach.

"She's a fantastic role model for other coaches across the state," she said.

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