Like many of the athletic programs at Hernando Christian Academy, it has taken a while for the cheerleading squad to rise to a competitive level. Last year, the Lions cheerleaders and coaches felt like they were there, but more obstacles stood in their way than imagined.
This is only the second season the Florida High School Athletic Association has recognized competitive cheerleading as a sanctioned sport, but these small-school girls can't wait to show they belong with other top-notch squads around the state.
"When the FHSAA first announced its monumental decision concerning (cheerleading), we were all very excited," booster club president Ronna Sasser said. "One of (HCA's) goals is that we are trying very hard to change the image some perceive, not only of cheerleaders in general, but of how others view our sport as well."
Across the county, Nature Coast Technical High was the only Hernando County high school to send a squad to the state competition, and the Sharks represented the area well, placing second in the Large Co-Ed Division as the runners-up to Sebring High.
Coach Laura Westfall and the Lions foresee their squad could be just as competitive and impressive when given the opportunity in March at the Leon County Civic Center in Tallahassee. Before that event, the Lions will get their feet wet at multiple competitions this winter around the state.
First, the squad will make the trip to Lakeland for AmeriCheer in December, and then it is on to Florida Cheer and Dance in New Smyrna Beach in January. Finally, in February, the Lions will compete in the Christian Cheerleaders of America competition in Jacksonville as a final warmup.
"We are a small Christian school, and we all realize that it will be hard for us to compete with the rest of the schools," Westfall said, "but I think we also all know we are quite capable of doing so."
Last season, the team was unable to make the trip due to a coaching change and other instabilities, something that disappointed not only the girls on the squad but the administration and athletic director Mike Drummond. Over the past decade, HCA has taken great strides toward placing themselves as equals to the major high schools in the area. Cheerleading is no different.
"Whenever you have student-athletes competing in anything, you want to make sure there is an interest in it," Drummond said. "I try to support all of our sports on campus equally because they are all equally important to our success."
Cheerleading has been a staple at HCA since before Drummond's arrival in 1994. This was before school dress code regulations loosened a bit. The long skirts and long-sleeve sweaters speak to a different time. The team is now more modern in many respects, while also maintaining its Christian school image by being different from other prep squads in a lot of ways.
"One big difference for us is that we have to keep our music much cleaner than other schools," Westfall said. "We try to uphold Christian values and represent our school with integrity."
Westfall is a former cheerleader at Central Florida Christian Academy in Orlando and knows the ins and outs of competing with a Christian school. She took over the program at HCA midway through last season, and the squad has really stabilized since then. Even after losing four seniors from last season's squad, Westfall has her girls believing that this year's team is just as qualified to make a statement.
"We all have a really positive attitude," captain Haley Sasser said. "Just because we don't have a large number of girls on the squad doesn't mean we should be overlooked."
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Coach: Laura Westfall
Booster club president: Ronna Sasser
Squad members: Haley Sasser (captain), Paulina Decker (co-captain), Jenna McDaniel, Kaitlyn Lowe, Ashley Heinecke, Kyra Tibor, Elizabeth Zayas, Brittany Runyan, Eunjae Lee.