The North Laurel High School Cheerleading Team took third place this past weekend in Small Varsity Division I at the 2019 UCA National High School Cheerleading Championships held in Orlando, Florida.
NLHS cheer has quite the reputation, as this was North Laurel's 21st year taking a cheer team to nationals. Last year, the team snagged fifth place at nationals.
"Out of all those years, we've only not been in the final competition a hand full of times," said North Laurel Cheer Coach Toni Blake Greer. "That's always our goal--you don't want to be that team that doesn't make it to finals and you sure don't want to be that team that doesn't place."
Greer was a NLHS cheerleader and her assistant, Mercedes Laster, was also a North Laurel cheerleader. Both cheered at the University of Kentucky, as well.
"You could say it runs deep in our veins," she said. "Cheer is very important to North Laurel. When you walk in the gym, that's all you see is pictures of North Laurel cheer everywhere. We really take pride in it."
This year, there were 12 cheerleaders on the NLHS cheerleading competition team.
"Making our competition team is very strict," Greer said. "You have to be 100 percent dedicated to make North Laurel cheer and especially to make the competition team."
This year's NLHS cheer competition team was an extremely young group, made up of five eighth graders, four freshman, one junior and two seniors.
"We totally had to regroup--reboot and regroup, that's been our motto all year," Greer said.
In August, North Laurel's head choreographer and head coach of the University of Kentucky Cheer Team, Jomo Thompson, came up with this year's routine for the NLHS cheerleading team.
"Every August, we get with Jomo for ideas on a routine and he kind of lays things out for us and gives us a skill level that he hopes we're at by nationals," Greer said. "Mercedes and I take the routine that he gives us in August and we tweak--there's no way our girls are ready to hit a nationals routine by then. Then, depending on how we do at region, if we advance on to state, we make it a little harder and then by January, we're ready to do the routine he gave us, which is pretty much a mini college routine."
At this year's UCA Bluegrass Regionals, which is the qualifier competition for nationals, North Laurel placed in fifth, which earned them a bid at nationals.
The cheer team experienced a setback two weeks before nationals when senior Madison Hibbitts broke her finger but the team quickly bounced back.
"She came back the week before nationals, she was not sitting out her senior year, so she competed in nationals with a broke finger," Greer said.
With such a young team this year, Greer said she and Laster weren't sure what to expect going into nationals.
"Pretty much the majority of my team had never been to nationals before, so we had to deal with all that stress and emotions that come with it," she said. "Honestly, we really didn't know what to expect because we've never taken a team this young, ever. Our goal was just to hit the routine that was given to us because we had never hit it before, we had never actually performed it to the fullest."
On Thursday, just 24 hours before the NLHS cheerleading team was set to perform in the preliminary round at nationals, Greer said the team nailed its routine for the first time. The NLHS cheerleading team performed on Friday and Saturday, making it through both the preliminary and semifinal rounds.
"We got better every single time," Greer said. "At finals, we hit a fabulous routine, the best they had ever done it--not one mistake. And we ended up in third place.
"We're very happy with third. Come Saturday night, our goal--we've always been in the top five for years, so our goal was to make three top and we rounded it out with third place and we were ecstatic."
Greer said she wanted to thank the NLHS gymnastics coach Jason Keogh for working so hard with the team throughout the season.
She also wanted to thank everyone who helped make this season possible for the NLHS cheer team, such as NLHS Principal Michael Black, NLHS Director Jimmy Durham, Laurel County District Athletic Director Randy Leger and Johnson Elementary School Principal Jamie Gilliam.
"Our administration is very understanding," Greer said. "I can go to them with any problem or any time I can't get a practice facility, they're always right there helping me find one."