From 100-degree heat in September to 30-degree temperatures in December, the West Hernando Cougar cheerleaders were motivated to withstand a lot in hopes of fulfilling their goals this season.
With no indoor practice facility, the Mighty Mites squad withstood questions all season about whether its group was even the best in its own league or age division. Those questions didn't go away after an impressive performance by the team in the Pasco Police Athletic League's Cheer Off in November.
"These girls choose to put so much effort into (cheerleading)," Cougars director Debbi McFarland said. "They come out here every night for months and lay it all out there no matter what else is going on."
The Cougars put together a near-flawless routine, but thanks to a strong showing from the Lutz Chiefs, West Hernando had to share the first-place title. At the time, McFarland was optimistic that all doubts about her team's superiority would be laid to rest during the Tampa Bay Cheer Blast. She was right.
That competition was also held in November and included more than 70 cheerleading programs from the state. Lutz and West Hernando both attended, making it the Cougars' best opportunity take a title away from their rivals.
What happened next floored even McFarland and assistant Joe Piecora. The Cougars not only won their age division and claimed victory over the Chiefs, they were crowned Grand Champions of the competition. The Grand Champion squad is the team that scores highest and closest to perfection of all the teams.
"Before the season began, I realized that our team was good and might have a shot at placing first at the Cheer Blast," McFarland said. "I never imagined that we'd ever be Grand Champions. I'm still in shock now."
From there, it was settled in McFarland's mind: her Mighty Mites team would move on to grander stages. The first of those upper-level competitions was the Eastern Cheer and Dance Association University High Regional Championship in Orlando.
West Hernando captured the ECDA regional title by beating out another PPAL team in the New Port Richey Buccaneers. The victory wasn't as simple as being better than the other four squads competing in the Youth Non-Tumbling Division. The Cougars had to score at least a 70 percent, or 180 points overall.
There were no questions after a 251-point effort.
The final championship, and the biggest surprise, was still yet to come. After a clerical error in registration, the Cougars were accidentally entered into the Rec and School Cheer Division at the Official Florida Championships. This division included co-ed prep squads from schools such as Tampa Catholic, Sunlake, Newberry and Wesley Chapel, to name a few.
The Mighty Mites, however, defeated them all. The Cougars' score was higher than the other 64 other programs entered at the Florida State Fairgrounds.
It's not often that a cheerleading squad can be recognized alongside other sports teams as one of the best athletic units in the area, but the West Hernando Cougars cheerleaders have done that this season by winning four major competition titles.
"Winning those competitions is what makes this one of the best things I've ever done," cheerleader Paige Bavis said. "It's definitely worth all the hard work we have to put into it."
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