The Indian River High School competitive cheerleading team knew they were going to have to “bring it on” when they took the mats at Smyrna High School for the state championships last Sunday, March 5. Luckily for them, it had already “been brought."
An impromptu performance in front of the entire school at a pep rally held on Thursday, March 2, paved the way for one of the team's top performances of the season at states just three days later, and helped bring home the school’s first state championship for competitive cheer since 1984.
“It was strategic. I didn’t want them to get comfortable,” said head coach Kaitlyn Donofrio of notifying her squad of the pep rally appearance the day before. “Every time you perform in front of people it helps.”
“We were nervous so we didn’t do our best. Two of our stunts fell,” said sophomore Gabby Hudson of that Thursday performance. “It just showed us that we needed to work harder before states.”
So, that’s what the Indians did as they prepared for their final performance of the season on Sunday, stabilizing their stunts and nailing their routine to eventually hoist the trophy in the co-ed division.
“I think everybody’s really excited,” said sophomore Lauren Grow. “Everybody was really excited on the bus ride there. At our last competition, at Lake Forest, it had been a little bit shaky, but then our warm-ups were really, really good, so everybody was feeling really good. We went out and performed, and I think it went a lot better.”
“We had to try to be perfect,” added Hudson.
Just to get to the finals, the Indians first had to advance through preliminary performances at Polytech on Feb. 18 and Lake Forest on Feb. 26.
Donofrio actually cited the squad’s Feb. 18 showing at Polytech as their best of the season —including Grow taking the “tumble-off” by a practical landslide.
“Each team sends their best tumbler, and Lauren Grow was the last to go,” Donofrio explained. “Each tumbler had to do two tumbling passes, and the best tumbler won. Lauren Grow didn’t even make it off the mat and they already announced her as the winner.”
The championship-winning season comes during Donofrio’s third at the helm. A competitive cheerleader herself growing up in Baltimore, Md., it’s been her aim to get the program at Indian River back off the ground and to help grow competitive cheer throughout Sussex County.
“I think she does a great job,” said Hudson of Donofrio. “She gives us a really hard routine, and she knows we can’t do it at first but she expects us to rise to that level and get better and better.”
“She’s very strict, but in a way that helps you grow as an athlete,” added Grow. “I have so much respect for her and think she’s done an amazing job.”
Also instrumental in the team’s success this season were seniors Chance Kamin, Chris Jones and Sam Nitz — the only male cheerleaders on the roster, but ones who Donofrio, Hudson and Grow all agreed were critical factors in the team’s success and overall chemistry.
“They just make us all laugh. They’re such a positive impact on the team,” said Hudson. “We trust them when we’re in the air. When you trust each other, it makes your team that much better.”
“They’re so funny at practice,” added Donofrio. “Any cheer team, you have a special bond because you’re putting your life in someone else’s hands. We’re just a big family.”
Along with senior Rachel Burke, the Indians are set to graduate Kamin, Jones and Nitz this spring.
Donofrio and the returners are hoping, however, that next year they’ll continue to be a co-ed team, and that male athletes at the school decide to step up and join them on their run to get back on the banner with another state title.
“I would hope that some of the boys that aren’t doing a winter sport would want to try out for something to get them prepared for a spring sport,” said Grow of athletes such as Nitz, the face-off specialist for the Indians’ lacrosse team in the spring. “I would hope that everybody would be open to it, because it is fun being a co-ed team.”
They’re also hoping that this season’s success will help shed some light on the cheerleading program at IR and cheerleading as a sport in general, which in the past hasn’t been acknowledged as they feel it should be at the school.
“We just use it as motivation,” said Hudson of overhearing short-sighted prejudices against the sport, “especially during pep rallies. We do work hard to be able to do what we do. I hope that even if we end up an all-girl team next year we can continue to win state titles.”
“We want to just keep winning,” said Donofrio. “We want to eventually become one of the teams that everybody doesn’t want to compete against.”
Members of the 2017 state championship team included: head coach Kaitlyn Donofrio, senior Rachel Burke, freshman Savannah Endebrock, freshman Sammi Fischer, sophomore Lindsey Furbush, sophomore Gabby Hudson, sophomore Madison Galbreath, sophomore Lauren Grow, sophomore Lauren Gulbronson, junior Brianna Johnson, senior Chris Jones, senior Chance Kamin, junior Kara Klink, sophomore Madison Killen, senior Sam Nitz, sophomore Tori Shaner, sophomore Chelsea Shipp, sophomore Brooke Weaver, freshman Marley White and freshman Alika Mitchell.