The Viking cheerleaders show their stuff after yet another touchdown in La Jolla's 32-0 Homecoming win over Serra.
PHOTO BY ED PIPER Jr.
La Jolla cheerleaders perform on the sideline during Homecoming. PHOTO BY ED PIPER Jr.
The big news in La Jolla High cheer this school year is that Cindee Russell’s squad, in addition to pumping up the spirit at football and basketball games, as well as at other events, is going to field a performance team for the first time to vie in United Spirit Association (USA) competitions.
“Our first date is Dec. 4 for the USA Classic,” said Russell, in the midst of running her select group within the so-called full-squad “game time” cheerleaders putting them through their paces on a recent afternoon on the new artificial turf in front of the visitor’s concession stand. It is there where members of Russell’s varsity and junior varsity work during football games as a fundraiser for the program.
Dates to follow include the USA Regionals, Jan. 7 in Fontana, and the SoCal Winter Classic Jan. 15 at SDSU.
Asked how she was going to have her performance team ready for the regionals five days after students return to class after the New Year, taking winter break off, the second-year advisor said, “We’re working now. We’ll be ready.”
Senior Sally Chen and juniors Sabrina (Bibi) Gutierrez and Julia Munson, representing among them 10 years of experience on LJHS varsity cheer, were controlled but getting the spirit up during a break from practicing stunts for competition.
“Whereas football players lift a two-pound ball and throw it, then try to catch it,” said Munson, blond hair cut short for the new school year, “cheerleaders lift a 100-pound girl and throw her, and we catch her!” She was being a little mischievous, as the discussion turned to how students and others outside cheer dismiss cheer as a sport and disregard participants’ athleticism. She pointed out the football team, which they love dearly: “We love/We love our varsity,” goes the chant at the end of games, and they have “football buddies” they give treats and Gatorade to – sometimes is prone to dropping the ball on the field.
The daunting assignment of getting the home crowd into the game when things are not going well for the team on the field came up. Said Bibi, with Chen a co-captain under head captain Diana Dominguez: “Sometimes we have our parents pass the word to other parents during the chants, to get them going. Another thing we do is during breaks tell students in the stands to help us out.” By any means necessary.
Something the general public doesn’t realize is that competitive cheer has one of the highest, if not the highest, rate of injuries compared to other sports. “Cheerleading today is completely separate from the way cheerleading used to be,” said a determined Russell during her break. “The athletic ability (among participants) has to be there. That’s what people don’t recognize.”
“They (my girls) work hard out here from 2:30 to 5:30 everyday,” she asserted, and they don’t receive any school credit for physical education or any other class.
The sisterhood, which includes the frequent presence of Kylie Russell, the advisor’s daughter, a sixth-grader at neighboring Muirlands Middle School, comes together when a member is in need. “It was cool when our coach started last year. We’ve tried so many new things,” said Chen, who wants to attend Cal next fall to study biology toward her career goal of being a pediatrician. “It’s hard. Sometimes someone may get it in their head they can’t do (the new stunt). We’ll take them aside and talk to them to encourage them and tell them they can do it.”
Another way the cheerleaders, both on performance and the game-time group – which overlap –connect is through Facebook postings. “All our moms are on Facebook,” said Gutierrez, who is often the one seeking out a photographer’s camera after a cheer to preen or pose. “They can post on our cheer account.” Different girls or moms will post photos after football games.
Bibi said, “We have a lot of inside jokes” on the squad. “On Facebook we’ll call Sally ‘Chen-Chen’, Julia is ‘Just Julia.’” Raven Tafoya is “Raves,” of course. There are jokes, even among the feminine cheerleaders, about who flatulates during every stunt.
Gutierrez, with the energy flowing during practice in a corner of the new field surface, just outside the fence around the track, said mom Zory wants her to have the “college experience” her freshman year. But the 16-year-old has two years to go, so she has time to research colleges and plan.
“Environmental Science catches my eye,” says the diminutive pompom girl. “I don’t sleep in that class. It’s interesting. I’m very concerned about the environment.” She could end up pursuing her Associate of Arts first locally, at Mesa or Southwestern colleges. “In California,” she says her initial college choices will be.”
Munson has a non-traditional skill: instructing classmates in theater on the proper use of cutting saws. “I did two years in actual acting theater,” the junior says. “With tech’s, I’m in charge in my class for making sure they know how to use different saws (to construct backdrops): compound mitre saw, jigsaw, Skilsaw. If we have to, the basic handsaw, which is hard to cut with.”
Being visible members of the campus community, wearing their cheer uniforms on football game days and standing on the track in front of the stands during games, the trio agree they’re ambassadors for LJHS. “Students go by and say, ‘Julie, how do you feel?’” said Munson, mimicking one of their own cheers. “Parents come up and ask us where the game is.” There’s no hiding.
Munson, for her part, would like to attend UC Santa Barbara – my mom Sandra went to UCSB.” “I just did a tour there. It’s the only college I’ve visited. I want to stay in California. I don’t like cold things.” Sandra is nicknamed alliteratively “Mama Munson” by the cheerleaders as the “football team mom”, meaning for cheer during the football season.
Years ago on the Vikings cheer squad, a few members of the varsity didn’t handle the public nature of the position responsibility so well. Then-vice principal Bev Greco, overseeing the cheer advisor, dismissed at least one cheerleader from the program in a necessary pruning. The cheer advisor at that time brought new direction and new and improved behavior to the squad during an earlier “golden age” of LJHS cheer.
Russell is one of the beneficiaries of that era, standing on the shoulders of the advisors who came before her. She came on as assistant two years ago, then took the reins when the head advisor resigned. “I always wanted to coach cheer at La Jolla,” she said. She has family who attended the school, and she herself grew up participating in cheer, first outside school then for four years in high school in Kern County. She even coached while in high school.
“I think these are the most important years of their (cheerleaders’) lives,” she said emphatically. “It’s important that they have respect for themselves and for others. I have very strict rules on how they treat themselves and others, how they dress.
Though Russell said it is still “early” in her tenure at La Jolla and she hasn’t seen a dramatic “night and day” turnaround by one of her cheerleaders as a person yet, she said, “It’s really something when a girl says, ‘I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this,’ then one day they say, ‘I’m really going to do this,’ and they do. The change is visible.”
Her determination that her program at La Jolla will succeed is connected with her daughter Kylie’s own cheer involvement. Just starting middle school, her daughter does cheer elsewhere. It is definitely a cheer family.
Russell juggles all this while returning to school full-time. She apologizes for not getting back to an editor because of her packed schedule. But others have commented during her two years at the helm that her varsity and junior varsity squads perform well.
The advisor said that the cheerleaders will be visiting convalescent homes and performing at other venues during the school year, in addition to game-time and Performance Team responsibilities.