NEW PORT RICHEY — Two years ago, the cheerleading team at Pasco-Hernando Community College didn't exist.
Today, team members are state and national champions.
They won the American Open National Championship College Cheer Level 6 Division during a competition March 26-27 in Orlando.
But they wouldn't have gotten there without team captain Sophia Haddad.
Haddad has been cheerleading since she was 4. It has always been a passion of hers, but after high school, there were no opportunities for Haddad to move on and cheer for a university as she'd always hoped. When she got to PHCC, she began asking questions about the school's cheerleading history.
"I found out that the school had cheerleading teams in the past that never competed," Haddad said. "Apparently the program just faded away, so I wanted to get another team together. I had a lot of help from our director of student activities Robert Bade in holding meetings and recruiting people.
"We started the team, got uniforms, found a coach and started cheering at the basketball games for the first year."
Haddad saw the potential for something bigger in her newly formed squad, however.
Competition cheerleading is much different than standing on the sideline at sporting events.
The gymnastic aspect of competing meant that her squad of cheerleaders, many of whom had been absent from the sport for a while, now had to take the next step under her guidance and creative influence.
She held tryouts for the first time at the beginning of her sophomore year and began working on a choreographed routine the team could perform in competition.
"I've done choreography in the past and built our routine out of experience," Haddad said. "The first year, we had a bunch of walk-ons, but this year with tryouts we got girls who had all cheered before, although some not for a while. I know what is popular around the cheerleading world from my time spent as a cheerleading camp coach and going to competitions in the past, so I was able to use those experiences to help build the routine."
Haddad sought out a new coach last spring who could help her lead. She found Lisa Fairbanks, an assistant in the Department of Disability Services. Fairbanks would prove to be an emotional leader and someone who could help the team stay focused.
"I have to give so much credit to Sophia because she created this team," Fairbanks said. "It was exciting to win because after our first routine we had not done well and everyone's heads were hanging. The judges gave us nine out of 10 for the routine so I knew if we hit it, we had a chance to win. I told them we still had a chance, and when they went back out there the second time, they nailed it. Everyone was very emotional and I think we already felt like we were winners."
There is one male athlete on the team, freshman Aubrey Hutchison,, who joined during the spring just in time for competition. Hutchison believes he was able to help by bringing a different type of presence to the team as it prepared for nationals.
"I've had experience with other cheerleading teams but with this one I had a lot of friends," Hutchison said. "It's a little awkward at times being the only guy on the team, but it doesn't affect the way we work. I think what I brought to the table was a do-it-right attitude. I think I can push people to do things they normally wouldn't think they can do."
For Haddad, the experience of leading this team to victory on a national scale has helped her develop leadership skills. She now plans to attend the University of Alaska, where she will study political science. She recognizes that her cheering days are over and looks forward to taking a coaching job.
"The leadership side of my personality has come out a lot over this last year," Haddad said. "With the development of the routine and being in charge of the creative side of it, it definitely pulled that take-charge side of me out."