The award-winning Globe High School (GHS) cheer squad recently won the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA) Game Day Competition, a victory that builds on the team’s legacy of seven state titles and five state runner-up titles in the past ten years. Proud of her team, head coach Linda Noriega explained, “Game Day is a new division which is more the traditional cheer done on the sidelines for a football team. This is the first year we competed in the program and we took first.”
When asked what makes the GHS cheer program so outstanding, Noriega affirms, “The kids are dedicated and work really, really hard. That commitment to hard work and teamwork is what leads to state championships and eventually success in life.”
The GHS cheer squad competes in three styles of cheerleading recognized by the AIA: game day (cheer, band chant, fight song), pom (dance routines that combine jazz and contemporary elements), and co-ed cheer (cheering, tumbling, and stunting). The GHS pom team has placed in the top five teams statewide for the past 10 years and the co-ed cheer program has earned one of the top 3 slots for the past 6 years. Additionally, the team has competed at the national level multiple times and placed as high as seventh.
This record is impressive, but becomes even more so when learning that a majority of the cheerleaders enter the sport in high school. “We mostly start from scratch and build our programs,” Noriega observed. Freshman and seniors may work together as the squads are less about age and more about skill. “When they try out, depending on if they score high enough, they will go to varsity.”
Cheer team members have to be athletic, strong, and flexible to be on the team. They also need nerves of steel.
Since the early 2000s, cheer has been deemed one of the most dangerous school activities because of injuries sustained while stunting. Of high school female athletes, only 3% participate in cheer, but the sport accounts for 65% of the catastrophic injuries. Noriega explains, “It’s comparable to football because of the head injuries and broken bones.” She states the GHS teams have experienced a few concussions, but fortunately have had no catastrophic injuries.
Mahlea Widner, a senior who has been on the team for four years, is a flyer — the team member sent into the air during stunts. She acknowledges the risks she undertakes. “Yes, it’s very, very dangerous. I have fallen, but I have a very good mindset. If I fall, I’m going to get right back up.” Her fearlessness and tenacity make Widner a leader on the team.
Besides having little prior cheer experience and facing injury, the GHS team also faces tougher competitors than schools of similar size because the team is co-ed.
Cheerleading started as an all-male activity and remained so for 150 years until women became involved in the 1920s. Teams became more female when WWII created a dearth of available male students. Women’s participation continued to grow until it dominated in the 1970s, but this changed in the 1980s when cheer began to incorporate stunts. Increasingly high school cheer squads are becoming co-ed because boys allow higher level stunts. “You can still do the same level of stunts if the girls are strong enough, but it definitely helps our program when we get boys committed to the team,” Noriega explains.
However, being co-ed changed GHS’s status and elevated the intensity of competition. “There are multiple divisions. This year we are in Division 4 which is all the rural schools and some of the smaller private schools. Prior to that, we were in Division 3, but because they didn’t have other co-ed teams in Division 3, we had to compete against Division 1 and 2 schools which is a lot harder.”
All of these factors have forced the team to achieve higher levels of excellence and Coach Noriega says the team has accomplished this with intense desire, dedication and discipline. Widner agrees, “There are a lot of team members who are really committed and really want to win and will do whatever they can to win.” She states the team “put in a lot of effort to get where we want to be.”
The team’s success has been facilitated by supportive parents, business partners, committed fundraisers, and dedicated coaches.
Noriega cheered for GHS during high school and has been coaching for the past 11 years. Before her time at the helm, the team never competed, but during her first year they went to state and pom placed third. “I love the competition part of coaching. The preparation of getting the team to work as a unit to achieve the goals we’ve set.” She works with a team of outstanding assistant coaches (Connie Calloway, Megan Martinez, and Michelle Nabor), as well as with Brandon Chavez, a New Mexico choreographer who runs 365 Spirit.
“I want to instill lifelong lessons,” Noriega states “and hope the students take the value of what hard work and teamwork can achieve, then use those values throughout their lives.”
Thea Wilshire works as an author, psychologist, speaker, healthcare consultant, and AirBnB host. Her passions include community development, the creation of public spaces, trying new adventures, and sharing her therapy dog with schools and medical facilities. Find her blog at https://www.acornconsulting.org/blog.