First-time fan


WO Cheer Team lining up on the mat.

Kate Roudebush

“Portage Central is in the hole, and Caledonia is on deck,” booms through the speakers in the North gymnasium. “Now, we will be watching the team from West Ottawa compete their first routine.”

   The bleachers in West Ottawa’s gymnasium are packed with eager parents, cheering louder than the cheerleading teams, waiting to see their daughters compete.

   With their hair collected neatly into ornate ponytails under large white bows, West Ottawa’s competitive cheerleading team skips, runs, and gallops to the blue mats covering the gymnasium’s flooring. 

   The parents in the crowd jump and cheer. The energy in the gym is fierce and tangible. 

   Being a former gymnast, I didn’t know what to expect from a cheerleading competition; I’d grown up believing cheerleading was the rival sport of gymnastics, so I was expecting something similar to a typical floor routine. 

   As I walked into the North building on that cold Saturday morning, I could practically feel the excitement coming from the crowd surrounding me. I knew immediately that this was going to be nothing like a gymnastics meet.

   Competitive cheerleading teams from 15 nearby schools, their parents, judges, and numerous spectators crowded seemingly every corner of the building. Tables were set up all throughout Main Street to help with ticket sales. Mats lined the cafeteria floors to allow the cheerleaders to warm up before their routines.

   Each and every person I saw seemed overjoyed to be at the MHSAA District Competitive Cheer District Tournament. 

   As soon as I sat down to watch the competition, I was amazed by the school spirit that was so proudly displayed, not from the cheerleaders themselves, but from their parents. Hudsonville parents were dressed in bright yellow t-shirts while Jenison parents came prepared with their own enthusiastic chants. 

   The sounds of stomping, clapping, screaming, and cowbells filled the gym for the duration of the competition. The noise flying through the gymnasium–from the teams and the crowd–was overwhelming. The amount of parental involvement seemed like something out of a movie. 

   “Each year we kind of have a motto, and this year our motto is stronger together,” said Jr. Mariah Stewart. The team truly encapsulated that motto through each and every clap, jump, and stunt they competed that day. The group was strong and united.

   The first round of competition focuses on the team’s movements; judges keep a close eye on the cheerleader’s arm movements, claps, and creativity. The second round focuses on the different jumps and aerial skills, and the third round is all about stunting. Between each round of competition, the team changes uniforms. Each of West Ottawa’s team outfits highlights WO’s traditional black and white colors with touches of glimmering silvers.

   Sr. Kenya Garza calls the team to attention with a simple, “Set, here we go, ready,” and with that, the girls are off.

   I found myself incredibly impressed by the clearly well-calculated and sharp movements of each cheerleader. I stared in awe at the chaos around me more than a handful of times. The team competed each clap, jump, flip, and stunt as one, together. 

   As teams competed their routines, their coaches stood behind the judge’s table instructing the team on their upcoming skills. The liveliness of the coaches–grinning from ear to ear while silently yelling at their girls–was unlike any other coaching I had ever seen before.

   The competition was nothing short of challenging, but WO held its ground and competed aggressively. I watched astonished, and even a bit shocked, as each cheerleader left the mats with the sides of their thighs a deep red from just how much force went into each clap and slap.

   “During a competition, I feel a lot of adrenaline, but in a good way. I used to feel anxious, but as the seasons go you learn to turn the anxiety into excitement,” Sr. Melanie Hernandez said.

   After the first round, West Ottawa had earned 227.1 points. The process of judging the competition was hard to comprehend, but it seemed that a better routine resulted in a higher score. Being unsure of how cheerleading competitions are scored, this seemed to be an incredible start to me. 

   Each round left me completely amazed. The sheer talent and precision of each cheerleader was something I had not expected. 

   Each round lasted anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour as each of the 15 teams competed their three different routines. The rounds went by surprisingly fast as each team did an incredible job of captivating the audience.

   Round two secured the team another 200.2 points, and round three was another 290.5 points. All in all, West Ottawa’s competitive cheerleading team earned 695.8 points at the district tournament. Unfortunately, this score didn’t place WO in the top four which would have allowed them to compete at the regional competition. 

   Perhaps even more impressive than the cheerleaders, though, was the excitement of the crowd. Every team from every school brought a rowdy crowd along with them. 

   For an unprepared viewer, the groups of parents were a little intense, but their love and support for their children’s passion was heartwarming.

   Despite the overwhelming nature of the parent’s screams and the cheerleader’s chants, I found the competition to be rather impressive. The sharp movements, intense routines, and loud yelling all factor into an incredible performance.

   “This season was definitely the hardest season I’ve had yet. Our team was hit with COVID, injuries, and more. Still, my teammates showed up, ready to give their all in every practice, and I take a lot of pride in that,” Hernandez said.

   Although I may not know much about competitive cheerleading, I know now that cheerleading competitions are a wowing experience. It was evident that every girl out on the mat had worked hard to get to that competition, and their hard work had paid off. 

   “I guess bittersweet is the only word I could use to describe the feeling I had that day,” Garza said. “I was excited yet nervous because I knew deep down that it was our last time on the mat. I grew to love the experience so much that it was just hard to say goodbye.”