LAND O'LAKES — The Sunlake Seahawks finally have a championship banner in their gym after seven years in existence.
It came not on the gridiron or hardwood or even the diamond, but the grand stage of a cheerleading mat.
On Jan. 30, the school's varsity cheerleading squad traveled to Kissimmee to test itself against the best Florida has to offer. As the team celebrated its first championship, coach Pennye Garcia couldn't help but reflect on how far her team has come.
"What we did this year was special," Garcia said. "We started out winning the Best of Pasco competition, and one week later we competed at the Universal Cheerleaders Association regional competition and placed first in our division there. That was a big deal because we beat Winter Park, and they usually win every year."
Once getting to the state championship, Garcia's team had a tough road ahead that would test them with a routine Garcia designed with their specific skill sets in mind. Having stepped away from coaching at Sunlake a few years back, Garcia's return for this season involved a different approach than the girls were used to.
"This took a lot of discipline that sometimes the kids don't like," Garcia said. "I came in as a different coach than they've had the last few years, but I told them from the outset that I don't change what I do. I was at Land O'Lakes where we had a lot of success, and then I came here and I saw a team that is very athletic. That allowed us to do a lot of things other squads can't do."
Coming into the year, the team had set lofty goals. From day one, the girls identified a state championship as their top desire, and it soon became clear that they had the right coach to help them get there.
"Coach Garcia coming in pushed all of us to our highest potential," junior Autumn Darrigo said. "We watched tapes of our old competitions and set a goal from the beginning to take first at state. She treated us like athletes and expected a determined work ethic. Our routine was not easy by any means, but this competition made us put everything we've learned onto the mat."
After their routine, Sunlake was unofficially crowned the winner, but due to a freeze on North Florida's roads, some teams did not arrive until the following morning. The Seahawks had to wait almost 24 hours to find out if they had actually won.
"We couldn't really hide our excitement once we were in first, but that uncertainty was in everyone's head," junior Olivia Connors said. "It was a very nerve-wracking day while we were waiting, but as soon coach confirmed it we were ecstatic. It's such a good feeling to have all that work pay off, and to be the first Sunlake team to win a state championship is a big point of pride for all of us."
The way the team found out was a bit anti-climactic, but exhilarating nonetheless: Garcia saw it announced on the FHSAA website and confirmed it with a call to the director of the competition.
"It was a very torturous wait," Garcia said. "I put everything into whatever I do, so that was really hard. It was kind of surreal once we knew. I didn't feel like we won because we didn't have a trophy yet or medals or anything, just a website that said we won. Last week when the director came with county athletic director Phil Bell and presented us our trophy and medals, it really set in finally."