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More than meets the eye: Cheerleaders enhance school, fan experience

Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski Bellwood-Antis High School varsity cheerleaders perform during a football game with visiting Tyrone Area on Aug. 23.

Tyrone High School Cheerleader Baylee Mertiff will long remember this season’s football opener against Bellwood-Antis — it marked her debut as a varsity cheerleader and the game went into double-overtime.

On the opposite sideline, Bellwood-Antis Cheerleader Casi Shade began her senior season cheering in the Backyard Brawl as Bellwood-Antis won 35-32 under the lights Aug. 23.

Baylee and Casi share similar stories about why they chose cheerleading. Despite her team’s loss, Baylee said her varsity cheering debut is a dream come true.

“I became a cheerleader because as a little kid, I always looked up to the older cheerleaders and wanted to become like them someday,” she said. She’s the daughter of Lucas and Jessica Mertiff of Tyrone. “I first joined a cheer team when I was about 6 years old. My one varsity coach, Jessica Anderson, was actually my first-ever cheer coach.”

Casi, daughter of Shana Sager and Jason Shade, both of Bellwood, said she began attending football games at a very young age.

“I would only go to football games to watch the cheerleaders,” Casi said. “I was the little girl standing at the fence, looking up at the team, dreaming of the day I could do what they’re doing. I give all the credit to my sister (Alexis); I grew up watching her cheer and have always wanted to follow her footsteps. After joining youth cheer, my own passion for it developed and I just stuck with it.”

The PIAA has considered cheering a sport since 2001, according to its website, and describes it as a sport incorporating tumbling, routines, jumps and dance.

Some Blair County schools offer both a spirit cheer squad and a competition squad.

At Bellwood-Antis, the varsity cheer squad doubles as the traveling competition squad, Casi said.

Hollidaysburg Area School District offers a spirit team at both junior high and senior high levels. Spirit adviser Patty Sohmer has coached various squads in her 26 years and has seen the sport evolve.

“It’s much more athletic than it used to be,” she said, during a Monday afternoon practice. “A spirit team is all about bringing out the enthusiasm in a crowd. Building school spirit is my passion.”

Sohmer talks as the squad continues working on a routine under the guidance of captain Bella Lear and co-captain Kiki Herron.

“The two work really well together,” Sohmer said, noting the two have cheered together since junior high.

Kiki’s cheering career started with taking dance lessons and then she attended a mini-cheer camp.

“I’ve liked it ever since … especially the stunting and dance parts,” said the daughter of Becky Herron and Joe Herron, both of Hollidaysburg.

The daughter of Nicole Leaper and Brody Lear, Bella said her mother’s high school cheerleading experience inspired her.

Altoona Area School District offers three different cheer programs: varsity, competition cheer and Sparkle Pep Club, said Jamie Dyer, who is in her second year as head varsity, competition cheer coach and Sparkle adviser in addition to being an English and Gifted Support teacher.

Altoona Area Senior High’s varsity team is comprised of 27 girls, with 20 of those also on the competition squad.

The Sparkle Pep Club consists of nine varsity cheerleaders and other students.

“It is a club where students both with and without disabilities are also able to cheer on our teams from the sidelines,” Dyer said. “It promotes inclusion and respect for everyone.”

The Sparkle Pep Club attended swimming, boys volleyball and girls softball last school year, she said.

AAHS cheer squads mostly attend football, boys’ and girls’ basketball and wrestling, Dyer said, but tries to support all athletics offered by attending other “big events” such as the gray out game for girls’ volleyball and senior night for boys and/or girls soccer.

“Like many high schools, the cheerleaders play an integral part in the fan experience,” said Stephen P. Puskar, principal at Claysburg-Kimmel High School. “Their role is rooted in the school, where they are responsible for pep assemblies and other spirit-related activities like decorating athlete lockers and making spirit signs, and it extends to game night, where they are counted upon to represent the spirit of good sportsmanship by leading cheers for our teams and representing Claysburg and ‘Bulldog Pride’ with enthusiasm and in a manner that makes us proud.”

Leaders off the field.

“Our cheerleaders are leaders in the classroom as well, oftentimes achieving at the top tier of the academic ladder. Like all students, we are very proud of our cheerleaders, and by extension, the programs and athletes that they represent and more importantly, support,” Puskar said.

Hollidaysburg’s Sohmer agrees with Puskar. She and her staff work with 12 varsity and 20 junior high school cheerleaders who attend home and away games in football, basketball and wrestling.

Cheerleading also builds responsible college students and adults as the demands of juggling learning with cheering teaches time management and creates high achievers, several advisers said.

“They learn leadership skills, develop camaraderie with one another and are involved in many other school activities. They care about representing the high school well and value their role in the school community,” Sohmer said.

For spirit cheer teams, the thrill comes when adults and students alike chant along with the squad, she said. “That’s what high school sports is all about … it’s joy in the competition and not just about the win.”

At halftime of home games, the Hollidaysburg squad treats the opposing side’s cheer team to snacks as they sit together. “It’s all about teaching good sportsmanship, too,” Sohmer said.

Bellwood-Antis senior Casi said she’s learned “dedication, courage, integrity and so many leadership skills through cheerleading. Cheerleading really teaches you to work for what you want. And being a cheerleader, you really aren’t allowed to be afraid. You have girls trusting you to throw them and catch them correctly so no one gets hurt … and you can’t let fear get in the way. There really is nothing a cheerleader won’t try, especially if it benefits their team.”

Mirror Staff Writer Patt Keith is at 949-7030.

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