It turns out that a winning football season is more fun for everyone, not just the players.
The South Tahoe High School football team wrapped up its best season in almost a decade Friday night, and the 20-person varsity cheerleading squad supported the boys from the sidelines for every touchdown and field goal along the way.
"It's way different to cheer for a winning team. It's way more exciting and the crowd gets way more involved," STHS senior Heather Dominguez said on Thursday as the varsity squad prepared for the final game of the season.
The group of 19 girls and one guy - as the only male cheerleader on the varsity team, Gustavo Rodriguez has to put up with a lot of girl talk - gathered at the middle school on Thursday to prepare for the game against Truckee. For some of the athletes, Friday would also be their last home game, and in keeping with STHS cheer tradition, the squad wanted to make all the seniors fly.
Each of the nine seniors got the chance to leap above the stunt group as a flyer during the home game. Safely, of course, Varsity Spirit Coach Lia Story said.
Safety is a big concern for the squad. The number of cheerleaders injured annually in the past 20 years has increased dramatically nationwide, and Story said stunts that involve throwing cheerleaders more than 10 feet in the air or difficult back flips have made cheerleading the most dangerous high school sport, even though it technically isn't considered one.
The Nevada Interscholastic Athletic Association doesn't recognize cheerleading as a sport, a common policy that the American Academy of Pediatrics labeled as dangerous in an online statement released on Oct. 22 in the journal Pediatrics.
According to the academy, cheerleading should be designated as a sport to make it subject to safety and better supervision rules. Just like the football players, cheerleaders should need to pass physical exams and do conditioning exercises, the policy read.
The STHS cheerleaders started preseason conditioning this year in early July and have continued with the exercise regimens throughout the season two hours per day, Monday through Friday. It takes an enormous amount of balance and core strength to perform the stunts the cheerleaders do almost daily, Story said.
That doesn't mean the team doesn't sometimes feel relegated to the sidelines though. The whole squad trudged outside on Thursday when they were told that they couldn't practice in the middle school gym because Pop Warner had reserved the space. Shivering in the 40-degree air in shorts and a T-shirt, sophomore Trinity Latella sighed.
"Sometimes we get the short end of the stick," she said.
Story fixed the misunderstanding, but she agreed that cheer is often marginalized - and not just at the high school level. While professional football players can makes millions of dollars a season, professional cheerleaders make about $75 a game, according to Jeanne Marie Laskas' book "Hidden America: From Coal Miners to Cowboys, an Extraordinary Exploration of the Unseen People Who Make This Country Work."
Laskas calls cheerleading an invisible profession and Story said she also sometimes feels the girls' efforts go unseen.
"They work really hard. From mid-July until the last day in February, they cheer every day. People look and see that they're just jumping up and down and dancing. They don't understand all the work they put in to it and the risks involved," Story said.
In the meantime, the squad continues to challenge stereotypes while still supporting the school's official sports teams. The National Federation of State High School Associations approved a rule change that allows cheerleaders to do back flips and other inverted stunts and Story said the team has continued to push its elite stunting abilities.
So when the crowd sees the team on the sidelines at the STHS basketball games this winter, they should look beyond the pom poms and the uniforms and recognize the athleticism involved, Story said. When STHS Principal Ivone Larson saw Rodriguez pulling back flips at the Home Coming dance two years ago, she knew those talents would complement the squad well.
And hopefully the basketball team can countinue the momentum that the football team started.
"It's difficult for the cheerleaders when the team is losing and you're trying to rally the crowd and the score is 45 to zero. You still have to be happy and smile since it's a performance sport," Story said.