PANORAMA - All in good cheer

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Christy Richard, cheer coach at DeSales Catholic High School, warms up with the team before the playoff game against Waitsburg-Prescott.

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Wa-Hi coach Cathy Rasley leads a cheer practice in the gym.

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The Walla Walla High School cheerleaders practice stunts, including this basket toss, during one of their many practice sessions in preparation for the upcoming basketball season.

As the lights wind down on fields and in gyms across the country, there's one group of athletes that ends every game with a smile on their faces.

Their job is to support the team and the fans, win or lose.

And although their gear includes bright pom-poms and the uniforms aren't always conducive to the weather, the cheerleaders' are an important athletic presence.

Cheerleading squads across the Walla Walla Valley range from small, open groups like that at DeSales Catholic High School to large, organized, try-out only squads at Walla Walla High School, whose gymnastic routines can wow a crowd.

And all of the squads take their jobs seriously.

"It's our job to pump up the crowd," said Wa-Hi cheerleader Allexa Kaylor. "If the team's not doing so good, we need to step in and keep them entertained."

It's not always an easy order for these teams.

Wa-Hi's cheer squad has 12 juniors and seniors and is try-out only, said coach Cathy Rasley. The squad spends about six hours a week practicing, in addition to cheering at six or seven football games and 18 basketball games a season.

Touchet's team of eight says basketball season is better to cheer for than football.

First, it's inside.

"It's a lot warmer," said Alex Sasser, a co-captain on the team. "And people have to pay attention to us, because we're right in front of them."

DeSales cheerleader Jessica Arnzen knows cheering in the cold can be tough. She had a hand warmer explode earlier this season.

The Irish cheerleaders stayed on the football sidelines into the postseason, unlike Wa-Hi's and Touchet's.

Most of the area cheerleading squads begin practicing early in the summer, preparing the 50 or more cheers, chants and dances they perform throughout the season.

Some teams, like Wa-Hi, also attend cheer camp to certify them to do stunts.

But all of the teams focus on pumping up the crowd, and they put work into it.

Touchet and DeSales cheerleaders practice about 10 hours a week.

That's comparable with the other varsity athletes, said Touchet Principal Elissa Tinder.

Tinder helps out with cheer practice and was a cheerleader herself.

"It's just as good, if not a better, workout than any other sport," Tinder said. "The injuries and danger that they face make it a sport."

Wa-Hi's cheerleaders are stunt-certified, meaning that they can go higher up and perform riskier moves than Touchet and DeSales.

"It makes me mad when people say it's not a sport," said Wa-Hi cheerleader Amanda Marcum. "Cheerleaders have the most injuries in any sport. It's definitely something we work hard at - I mean, we're sweating now."

Marcum's team practiced stunting as she spoke, sending the flier - the cheerleader tossed in the air - high above the Wa-Hi gym's floor.

The cheerleaders at all schools run, stretch and stay limber year-round, and many participate in other seasonal sports, including swimming, tennis, track and softball.

"I play basketball, and I seriously think this is harder," said Touchet cheerleader Jessica Morris. "You do a lot more with your whole body."

The coaches recognize the work, too.

"It's like any other team," said Wa-Hi coach Rasley. "Can these girls play football? Well, maybe not, but the football players can't do our stunts. If anyone has a problem with it, they can come to our practice."

In addition to the physical activities, cheerleaders also have to do much of their own fundraising.

Schools cover about half the costs of the custom-fitted uniforms, which run about $300. The girls also wear school sweats and carry accessories - like gloves and hats - in school colors. Some of the squads pay their own travel costs, while others can ride the team bus. And the girls and their families pay for cheer camp, which can be very expensive.

Fundraisers - including car washes and selling food and merchandise at events like the fair - help offset those costs.

DeSales limits cheer fundraising, said DeSales coach Christy Richard.

The private school has its own capital campaign for larger funds, which limits the Irish squad.

"We ask people for thousands of dollars to keep the lights on, and they, understandably, don't want the cheerleaders asking for extra money for pom-poms," Richard said.

DeSales' girls are also driven to events by their parents, not riding a team bus like Touchet does.

But Touchet has its own challenges.

Budget cuts there nearly left the small school without a cheerleading squad at all.

Sandy Gobel stepped in to volunteer with the team. Tinder helps her out.

"We appreciate her very much," Tinder said. "She's volunteering her time and there's nothing in the world live having an adult volunteer to spend time with the kids."

Tinder hopes Touchet will be able to hire a coach in future years.

"If we want cheer to be considered a sport, we need to treat it like one," she said.

Wa-Hi's Rasley has been leading the Blue Devil cheer squad for about 15 years.

Her squad practices in an upstairs weight room in the gym, while Touchet's girls take over the high school commons.

Unlike DeSales and Touchet, Wa-Hi is tryout-based. About 40 girls show up at the beginning of the year and Rasley brings it down to 10 or 12.

"A lot of the girls realize it's not as easy as they thought," she said.

For all involved, cheerleading is a huge time commitment. The girls not only have practice hours; they're also at football and basketball games.

In the winter, that means lots of time in uniform at basketball games, and time not spent in other activities.

For Arnzen, it meant missing a swim meet to cheer in DeSales' playoff football game a few weeks ago.

"Another person I swim with asked me, ‘Why are you cheering?'" she said. "I was missing a qualifying meet. I was like, ‘I made a commitment since summer to go to this.'"

DeSales' cheerleaders aren't allowed to have after-school jobs in order to give them time for cheer and homework, Richard said.

"A lot of us are also into other stuff at school, like ASB, and we definitely have to work school, homework and cheer into our schedules," said Hanna Schoeppner, who cheers for DeSales.

Between the time training and fundraising, it becomes a lot of work.

And unlike other teams, the cheerleaders have to do it with grace.

Attitude matters, Schoeppner said.

"It's hard to be happy that much. You always have to smile, your hair is washed, you always have to look cute," she said. "Even when the team's behind, you have to keep smiling. No one wants to see a grumpy cheerleader."

Amelia Veneziano can be reached at ameliaveneziano@wwub.com or 526-8323.

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