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Stand up & holler

They dance, leap, turn flips, build human pyramids _ and they do it all in unison.

They don't wear helmets or shoulder pads. They don't chase balls or block shots.

These athletes are cheerleaders, a sport that requires as much training and dedication as football, wrestling and soccer. Their routines require practice, practice and more practice.

"Precision by each member forms a good team," said Linda Martinez, coach of the Florida Wildcat All Stars, whose squads of girls _ and a few boys _ come from all around Tampa.

Two Wildcat teams recently placed in the top 10 in two national competitions.

The Junior Gold team placed sixth at a National Cheerleaders Association competition in late February involving more than 9,000 athletes. The senior elite team placed fourth.

The junior team is made up of students in grades 6 through 9; the senior elite team is grades 9 through 11.

The juniors placed fifth and the seniors sixth March 9-10 in the Indiana Jones exhibit in the MGM Studios theme park in Orlando. Competing were 975 teams representing nearly every state in the United States.

"All the teams were strong in the two big meets, during the last few weeks," Martinez said. "Just to place in the top 10 is quite an accomplishment. All of our girls had to do their best to do as well as they did. We have a couple more meets in the next few weeks, then in May we open auditions for next year's teams."

Martinez, 42, runs a cheerleading program at Lightning City involving nearly 300 athletes. The cheerleaders are separated into teams _ from entrance to elite levels.

To become a Florida Wildcat, athletes must have agility, good balance, strength and the flexibility of a gymnast. In fact, their gymnastics skills are valued more than their cheering ability.

Rich Ludke and Shauna Berry coach the senior elite team. Martinez, Michelle Goforth and Sharon Morris coach the junior gold team. And, they have their hands full.

Last year, more than 350 athletes auditioned for the Wildcats. No one was turned away, but even current team members must audition each year.

Participants are placed on teams according to their skill levels, from the developmental stage to the most experienced, and practice to improve their skills.

Megan Green, 14, a member of the junior gold team, said the weekly training sessions are strenuous.

"I used to play soccer, before I started cheerleading for the Wildcats," she said. "But it takes up so much time and effort, cheerleading is my only sport now. We practice three hours each Thursday and Sunday and the sessions are very intense. They get even more intense a few weeks before a big meet."

Lightning City trains even the very young, and the results can mean cash for college.

"We are the only program in Florida to have sessions for kids ages 3-6," Martinez said. "Then almost all of the older ones are part of the cheerleading squads at their schools. All 13 of the high school seniors on our teams last year are now part of a college squad somewhere. Many have scholarship financial assistance for cheerleading."

Sound off

Members of the senior elite team are: Terra Archuleta, Corey Brightman, Stephanie Bullock, Julie Cessna, Jamie DeSaito, Tara Diaz, Justina Guggino, Lacey Howard, Daniellie Horne, Chelsie Kacinko, Whitney Kahlert, Jenna Mitcheson, Lauren Pembo, Jacalyn Riveral, Kristin Rizo, Hollie Sells, Lauren Traina, Shailyn Wiskup and Kim Gaccone.

Coaches: Rich Ludke and Shauna Berry.

Members of the junior gold team: Amanda Alten, Brittney Blaxton, Brittany Boyette, Ashley Brown, Mallory Estabrook, Melissa Freyre, Ashley Frisco, Pamela Giaccone, Megan Green, Nicole Howard, Samantha Jackson, Jessica Jenkins, Meredith Johnson, Allie Kaplan, Nicole Kelly, Amber McCarthy, Teresa Martinez, Lindsey Montgomery, Nicky Newman, Kimberly Nichols, Heather Owen, Brittany Ray, Lia Sierra, Kristen Ridenour, Stormy Suarez, Mary Van Dine, Tiffany Vu, Leigh-Ann Walton, Nicole Whiting and Erin Yonke.

Coaches: Linda Martinez, Michelle Goforth and Sharon Morris.

To learn about the Lightning City program, call Linda Martinez at 558-0035.