On Tuesday afternoons in the cafeteria of ThunderRidge High School, the co-ed varsity cheer team wears red shirts with a pair of initials on one sleeve. They stand for a teammate who died by suicide …
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On Tuesday afternoons in the cafeteria of ThunderRidge High School, the co-ed varsity cheer team wears red shirts with a pair of initials on one sleeve. They stand for a teammate who died by suicide last year.
Around that time, another teammate's mother died unexpectedly. Then, the school's beloved principal lost his battle to cancer.
Through the trying couple of months, the team persevered — even excelled. On Dec. 8, the co-ed varsity cheer team took home the state championship, the first cheerleading title in the school's 23-year history.
“They are an awesome group of kids,” coach Mandy Martinez said. “It's really cool to see where this program has gone.”
Martinez took over as head coach six years ago and suggested that the then-all-girl squad try something different: co-ed. The team had been co-ed when the school first opened but switched to all girls several years prior. Faculty was all for the idea, Martinez said. One cheerleader recruited her brother and another male gymnast joined.
Martinez, who graduated from Grandview High School in Aurora, started cheering in eighth grade and continued through high school. She started coaching her last year of college.
This year, the varsity cheer team has eight boys, most of whom are football players. Martinez pitched the idea to the football coach before the season began, highlighting the benefit to players. Cheerleading builds agility, flexibility and strength, she said.
Martinez said the boys and girls on her squad have a “brotherly, sisterly love.” They have grown into a family.
Her athletes agree.
“We stick together. We check up on each other,” Ashley Burridge, a senior and captain of the varsity team, said. “(Martinez) is like a mom for us. She's amazing.”
This season, with hard work, dedication and a new mindset, the team took first place in its league, two regional competitions and state. Athletes said they focused on improving every day and succeeding at each competition, rather than putting too much pressure on the outcome at state.
But they encountered some challenges along the way.
Seven of the eight boys were brand new to the squad this year. During football season in the fall, those boys were only able to practice with the team Wednesday mornings before school. They had just two weeks to practice before the state competition.
Martinez attributes the success to mental toughness and hard work.
“The dynamic is very close,” she said. “They are comfortable, trusting and confident.”
The athletes are happy to say that they are no longer the underdog. They have a newfound respect from their school and the community.
“(Our school) saw what we can really do,” sophomore Jeremy Prinzi said.
On Feb. 9, the team heads to Walt Disney World for nationals. Their goal is to make the top five. If they qualify, they will go on to compete in the world championship, held at Disney World the same weekend.
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