Cheerleading’s Journey to the Top

Cheerleading’s Journey to the Top

Loudoun County walked away with both state championship titles at the Virginia High School League Cheer Championships Nov. 5 in Richmond. Riverside High School and Broad Run High School placed first in their respective divisions, continuing the county’s legacy of excellence in competitive cheerleading.

But Loudoun wasn’t always known as a cheer powerhouse. Cheerleading was recognized as a sport by Virginia in the mid 1990s, a time when Loudoun County high schools were not known for cheer and the club cheer scene was virtually nonexistent. Kyle Grussmeyer, Legacy All Star Head Coach, remembers opening an club gym in 2001. At the time, there were two other all star programs in the county, and the number continues to grow.  Unlike high school cheerleading, which includes participation at football and basketball games as well as the competition element, club cheerleading is a year-round training and competition commitment, Grussmeyer said.

The Riverside Rams Varsity Cheer Squad perform at the VHSL State Championships Nov. 5 at the Siegel Center in Richmond.

The Riverside Rams Varsity Cheer Squad perform at the VHSL State Championships Nov. 5 at the Siegel Center in Richmond.

Loudoun’s success at the high school level changed with Stone Bridge High School, Grussmeyer said. Joe Dolansky, Stone Bridge’s former varsity cheer coach, was the instigator of that change, joining the team of athletic coaches who helped open Stone Bridge in 2000.  At that time, coed cheer teams were unheard of in the county, Dolansky said, but that didn’t keep him from trying. That first year, Stone Bridge became the only Loudoun County team to qualify for the state’s regional competition.

Dolansky and other coaches also had to deal with the view of many in the community, including some in the school system, who did not buy into cheerleading as a sport, much less as a competitive one.

At first, the Stone Bridge cheer team had to practice in the cafeteria and the wrestling room on panel mats. When the team practiced stunting, sometimes the guys would accidentally throw girls into the ceiling because there wasn’t enough room, Dolansky said.  “So we had to adapt cheerleading for Loudoun, because we weren’t given the facilities or the respect at first, and had to earn it,” Dolansky said.

Some of that respect came after the varsity cheer squad won its first state title in 2004. At that point, it was the school’s only state title. Stone Bridge went on to win three more cheer state titles back to back, even as they switched from the AA to AAA divisions. After 2003, cheerleading was assigned the school’s auxiliary gym for practice, and they never lost it, Dolansky said.

“So we had to adapt cheerleading for Loudoun, because we weren’t given the facilities or the respect at first, and had to earn it,” Dolansky said.

While some on the team were self-taught cheerleaders or gymnasts turned cheerleaders, a good portion had prior cheerleading experience through club cheer. When guys joined Stone Bridge’s team, they went to  Grussmeyer to learn stunting, Dolansky said.

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Head varsity coach Joe Dolansky set the tone for cheer in Loudoun with his success at Stone Bridge High School.

“It was great because he was a guy, a collegiate cheerleader, and he showed them how to coed stunt,” Dolansky added.

Broad Run High School was next to rise in the local high school cheerleading scene, Danielle Oravetz, Riverside’s head varsity coach and former Briar Woods varsity assistant coach said. Oravetz was coaching at Briar Woods in 2009 when it too began to rise.

“We had a group of 13 girls who came to us in 2009, and that’s when Briar Woods became a strong program and started taking state titles,” Oravetz said.  “Ever since then, the flood of talent has kept coming.”

The Briar Woods Falcons run through their routine at their final practice before the States on Nov. 3 in the Briar Woods High School Auxiliary Gym.

The Briar Woods Falcons, 2015 state champions, run through their routine at a final practice before States on Nov. 3 in the Briar Woods High School Auxiliary Gym.

Briar Woods won four back to back state titles from 2009 to 2012 and then another in 2015, making it one of only two Virginia schools to win five state championships.

This year’s success of Broad Run and recently opened Riverside continued the winning tradition. Stalwarts Briar Woods and Stone Bridge, along with newly-opened Rock Ridge, also competing at the state finals.

Why so much success for Loudoun cheer?  It may be explained in part by a strong commitment to athletics generally and the county’s demographics, along with good coaching. It’s likely also the result of the prominence of nationally-competitive cheer gyms in Loudoun and their symbiotic relationship with high school cheerleading.

When cheer was first getting started on Loudoun, many cheerleaders on varsity teams were self-taught, but now that’s more rare, Grussmeyer said.  Legacy in particular has seen many state champions throughout its 14 years, and Grussmeyer said the business is so competitive that few all star gyms have lasted in Loudoun more than a few years.

“Well they’re very linked, they play off each other rather well. I mean, back when Joe Dolansky’s team at Stone Bridge was winning states, almost every single one of those kids had been cheering with me in club for several years,” he added. “It’s been a good area for cheer and just a lot of talented kids up here and kids who have been able to put the time into training and it shows, not just in club but in high school,” Grussmeyer said.

When Virginia designated high school cheer as a sport, the season was limited to the fall. Previously, coaches would pick their teams at the end of the season in the spring, train through the summer in camps and have a head start come fall. With the state sanctioned regulations on sports, cheerleading teams could no longer train over the summer and teams had to be picked in August. With states moved from the spring to November, this gave a lot less time for coaches to train cheerleaders and perfect routines, Grussmeyer said.

“It’s been a good area for cheer and just a lot of talented kids up here and kids who have been able to put the time into training and it shows, not just in club but in high school,” Grussmeyer said.

Lucia Curry, Briar Woods varsity head coach, remembers when states used to be held in March. Although the shortened season is challenging, she finds that it forces practices to be more productive, and with so many students coming in with club experience, they can move faster.

The Stone Bridge Bulldogs compete in the District Competition Oct. 18 at Briar Woods High School. The Varsity cheer squad advanced to Regionals, and later States.

The Stone Bridge Bulldogs compete in the District championship Oct. 18 at Briar Woods High School. The squad advanced to Regionals and later States.

Club cheer has also influenced how high school cheer is judged. Judging cheer used to be much more subjective, Dolansky said. Now it is rubric based and teams are judged on the difficulty and execution of tumbling and stunts. However, with teams having to do certain stunts in order to get a higher score, some of the creativity in routines suffers, Curry said.

While the sport designation of cheer comes with more weight than those using the word “sport” colloquially may expect, respect for cheer has gone a long way in the past 20 years.

“I think the athleticism itself has changed a lot but it’s been a pretty straight line in appreciation. It doesn’t go up and down, it just keeps getting a little bit more advanced, keeps getting higher standards, which has been definitely contributed to the success of groups in Loudoun County, not just the growth, but the success especially,” Grussmeyer said.

Five Loudoun County teams made it to the 2016 state championships: Riverside High School in the 3A district; Rock Ridge High School in the 4A district; and Briar Woods, Broad Run and Stone Bridge High Schools in the 5A district.

Riverside took home the 3A state championship title with a score of 272.5. Cave Spring High School was the runner up with 257, followed by Lord Botetourt High School with a score of 251.5 and Tabb High School with 244.5 in third and fourth place, respectively.

Broad Run took home the 5A state championship title with a score of 233. Mountain View High School finished a close second with a score of 230, followed by Hickory High School with 229 and defending state champion Briar Woods High School with 227.5.