Freedom High School's cheerleaders work to continue their streak at the top at the Florida High School Athletic Association's state championships this week.
Since the fall, the squad has placed first in four competitions within Hillsborough County and won the county's Western Conference Championship, beating the district's 26 other high schools. The girls also came in first out of 20 schools earlier this month at the FHSAA regional competition in St. Petersburg.
A first-place win in the state championship, which runs Thursday through Saturday at the Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee, would cement the season as the school's best ever.
"It gives you a lot of confidence, and it places a lot of pressure on you," said coach Linda Martinez.
The school's success comes at a time when competitive cheerleading is booming.
Jamie Rohrer, an FHSAA athletic director said cheerleading's competitive arm is the fastest-growing sport in Florida high school history.
The organization distinguishes between spirit teams, what most people associate with football games, and competitive squads. Spirit squads are considered an activity. Competitive cheer is a sport, Rohrer said.
Schools where spirit teams dabbled in competition are beefing up the competitive side now that the FHSAA hosts a state championship. When it started the state contest in 2008, about 160 schools participated.
This year, FHSAA expects 270.
To encourage more schools to get involved, the championships are open to any school that has participated at the regional level, regardless of where they ranked. Schools are split by size and whether their routines feature tumbling. The nontumbling division — where jumps and pyramids are okay but rolls are not — attracts the largest numbers.
That's good, Rohrer said, because it gives schools a change to get comfortable with competition and scoring before they move to a division that requires more difficult moves.
Freedom competes in the large-tumbling division. Its 2 1/2-minute routine is packed with jumps, stunts and pyramids. The first minute is cheering only with no music and the second portion is a routine set to music. Martinez said technique, precision, coordination are important, as is the overall "cleanliness of the routine."
So is difficulty. Senior cheerleader Shelby Carr said the team has tweaked the routine slightly to make it more challenging for the state competition, which could help them score higher. Judges at the state contest score routines with a more critical eye, Carr said.
The girls start the season in August at football games and concentrate more on the spirit side before getting serious about competition in October and November. Conditioning and endurance are important so the competitors can sustain their energy and technical skills throughout the routine, Martinez said.
Many of the athletes come from gymnastics backgrounds or, like Carr, have competed on all-star cheerleading teams. Martinez, in her fourth season at Freedom, said the biggest factor in Freedom's success is how the team works together.
Eight of the 20 girls have performed on her squad since they were freshmen. The consistency allowed Martinez to look for students during tryouts who could fill the team's gaps, bringing in strengths or special skills in areas that were weaker. She accepts 25 at the beginning of the season and carries 20 over to the competitions, with the others as alternates.
All have a common goal: finishing in the top three at the state championships. They have ranked in fourth and fifth place in previous years but not higher. Bloomingdale High has won the state championship in the large-school division three times: 2008, 2009 and 2011.
The championships are nerve-racking, said Carr, 17. Freedom's winning record doesn't guarantee a first-place finish, but the girls think they have a better shot this year than any previous team.
"All of the girls who are seniors on the team are pushing everyone," she said. "We really want this."
A strong performance at the state level could also show that Freedom's squad should be taken seriously. Since her freshman year on the team, Carr has run into classmates who want to argue that cheerleading is not a sport. She used to argue back. Now she refuses to engage them. A win would change some minds, she said.
Martinez said the people who have seen the athletic skills required at competition don't question them. Basketball and football players have come out to cheer for the cheerleaders at their competitions, she said, because they understand how hard they work.
"I think people look at the girls differently when they see all that the girls can do," Martinez said.
Courtney Cairns Pastor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.