The Pioneers of Cheer

Coastal Point • Tripp Colonell: The Indian River High School cheerleading team shows off some of their routine with a pyramid at practice. Pictured, center, are head coach Katelyn Donofrio and sidelined junior Jaycee Fitzpatrick.Coastal Point • Tripp Colonell: The Indian River High School cheerleading team shows off some of their routine with a pyramid at practice. Pictured, center, are head coach Katelyn Donofrio and sidelined junior Jaycee Fitzpatrick.Two years ago, Indian River High School didn’t have a competitive cheerleading team. This Sunday, the Indians will be headed for the state championship in Smyrna — again.

After taking second place in 2015, the squad will be looking to raise the bar and claim the title when they go up against both Smyrna and Caesar Rodney on Sunday, March 6. Just like they raised the bar in launching the program in 2015, and again in 2016, going from 16 to 23 members, they are making their presence known.

“We’re creating attention, and I think that’s so beneficial for us,” explained senior Madison McCabe. “The school’s starting to realize that cheerleading is a sport.”

While some of the roster is made up those new to cheer, much of it consists of former cheerleaders, such as McCabe, who are either rekindling their interest in the sport or leaving other non-school squads to instead represent their school.

“I was on an All-Star team last year, and I quit that team to join this team,” explained freshman Gabby Hudson. “There were a lot of good things about this team.”

“I quit [the sport] my sophomore season because I didn’t care about it as much, and then I heard a lot about how good she was,” added senior Victoria Distler of coach Katelyn Donofrio. “I wasn’t gonna come to the team if she wasn’t coaching, and when she was, my senior year, I joined.”

Distler isn’t the only one attributing the program’s new found success to the second-year head coach. With a storied cheer career herself, Donofrio has been able to help develop athletes, no matter their skill or experience level.

“She knows what she’s doing, and she knows how to work with us,” said McCabe.

“She is the best out there,” added senior Alissa Banks. “She changed this whole program.”

The enthusiasm has been contagious. Not only did the squad nearly double in size in only its second year, but it actually did double in size in terms of male cheerleaders — going from just two in 2015 to four this season. Senior Jared Ryan makes his return, while juniors Chris Jones, Chance Kamin and Sam Nitz have helped add more male presence by making their debuts.

Interestingly enough, it happens that Nitz didn’t choose cheerleading so much as it chose him. He had actually been headed for the wrestling room late last fall when he heard the literal call coming from the gym as he walked by.

“It was before the season, and I was walking through the hallway, and they just kind of dragged me in there,” Nitz explained. “They dragged me into practice on the first day, and then I got Chris and Chance to join, pretty much.”

Whether they needed a nudge or not, it’s all seemed to work out for the best — even if their first venture in the sport hasn’t been exactly how they pictured it.

“It’s not what I expected,” said Jones. “Usually, when you see it, you think, ‘Wow, that’s cool,’ but you don’t think of how much work actually goes into it beforehand.”

“It’s a lot harder than I expected. You have to put in a lot more work than you actually think you do,” added Nitz. “But I’m having fun.”

“Having fun” while exceeding expectations seems to be the general theme for the entire squad, starting with Donofrio and extending all through the lineup — even on to sidelined junior Jaycee Fitzpatrick, who hopes to be ready to go by next season. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t putting in the work, too.

So far this season, the Indians have competed in two preliminary events, leading up to the state championships on Sunday. And with them nailing their back tucks, back flips, front flips, and whatever else they need to nail, Donofrio has been impressed by what she’s seen so far.

“I don’t put a limit on their potential,” she said. “They all deserve the best, and that’s what I try to give them.”

Throughout the district, the sport seems to be on the rise, as well, with several other local schools expressing interest in getting some advice in launching their own teams for upcoming seasons. For Donofrio, being able to be an advocate of her sport has been a driving factor in her coaching career so far.

“We might have some competition next year,” she said. “That was my goal in taking the job. I wanted to change the program and make it better. I was a big competitor in [cheer], so I was gonna bring it wherever I was.”

No matter the outcome on Sunday, the Indians are proud to be pioneers of cheer.

“We’re proud to be able to represent our school,” said senior Logan Galbreath, “especially being the only team down south.”

The team is looking for all the support they can get at the state finals, where they’ll put all their focus into executing their routine.

“We’re trying to get more of a crowd there. If we’re doing a cheer and we say, ‘Yell “green,” yell “gold,” yell “white,”’ and nobody says it, it doesn’t have an effect,” she explained of the crowd’s impact. “There’s no timeouts. You don’t get to redo anything. If a stunt doesn’t hit, it doesn’t hit. You only have two minutes to go out there and prove yourself.”

The Indians will get their two minutes to prove themselves this Sunday, March 6, at Smyrna High School.