IR squad gives school something to cheer about

It’s hard to believe that Kristine Johnson has only just wrapped up her third year as Indian River’s head cheerleading coach when recounting the accomplishments her athletes have achieved. This past year, the squad managed to capture a collection of trophies, with first- and second-place finishes including the state championship for the large varsity coed division. From supporting football, basketball and wrestling to competing against other squads, Johnson has proven that there’s no task her cheerleaders can’t tackle.

Coastal Point • Ryan Saxton: Veronica Townsend, left, and Georgie Hattier display their first place trophy won at the state competition this year in the large varsity coed division.Coastal Point • Ryan Saxton
Veronica Townsend, left, and Georgie Hattier display their first place trophy won at the state competition this year in the large varsity coed division.

“I’ve been working with a young team this year,” said Johnson, who helped as an assistant prior to stepping in as head coach. “We’ve really been rebuilding the program from the ground up.”

She attributes the squad’s success to the dedicated parents who helped to keep the team going after her own pregnancy with her daughter limited her involvement with the team.

“They’ve been a great help for support,” she said, “but unless you’ve done a lot of the stunts, there’s only so much you can teach the girls. The team really got started last year, and this past season, we just took off.”

And took off, they did.

The Indian River team placed in six competitions this year, three of which were state-level. In addition to their first-place showing at states, they also took home the blue ribbon at the 2008 Extreme Shore Challenge and Cheer Jam competitions. Their Cheer Jam performance in Newark and showing at Cheer for Charity, an event that benefits the A.I. DuPont Hospital for Children, earned the squad a qualifier at states.

They also went on to capture second place at Reach for the Beach in Ocean City, Md., an open national competition of more than 375 teams for high school and all-star squads.

“That was a huge adrenaline rush for them,” said Johnson.

The competitive squad also brought home a second-place finish at the Delmarva Winter Splash in January at the Wicomico Civic Center.

In Johnson’s first year as head coach, she was faced with a dominant upper-class, with the squad composed mostly of juniors and seniors.

“It was a little tough, coming into that, but now I’ve got a great group of girls, three of which I’ve been coaching for eight years,” she said. Johnson began with the trio in the Pop Warner program in Lower Sussex and took them to regionals.

“It’s great to see them grow up,” she said. “In peewees, they were afraid to fly, and now they’re doing kick-twists and basket tosses.”

All-Americans Veronica Townshend, Alyssa Murray, Georgie Hattier and Taylor Rosenblit all helped lead impressive performances throughout the year. Hattier finished with a first-place ribbon at the Winter Splash for Jump Off and Tumble Off, and Brandy Tankard collected a third-place showing for the Tumble Off competition, too.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” said Hattier, a sophomore at Indian River.

Johnson has worked with four guys for the squad’s coed appearances, which proved to be a gratifying experience.

“The guys really did an awesome job,” she said. “Getting the coed thing going at Indian River is a brave new world. You don’t want to push their comfort level, but I was really impressed with how well they performed.”

The girls found the chance to add onto their routines with the addition of the male squad members.

“It was great working with the guys,” said Townsend. “It gave us the opportunity to try more stuff. They don’t do all the hip-shaking stuff that we do, but they’re stronger, and that opened a lot of other doors for us. Some of them caught some flack by some guys on the football team, but they came back and could at least say that they won something.”

“We had one guy, Garrett Jones,” said Hattier, “who came into it, basically knowing nothing. But, by the end, he was flipping everywhere.”

Modifying their routines to incorporate guys wasn’t the only tuning the girls had to do. The team had to adjust to thin foam mats, called “dead-mats,” rather than the spring floors found at most gymnasiums.

“It doesn’t offer any give at all, but that’s what they have at colleges, so it’s good practice,” said Hattier.

“A lot of us started from nothing, but we really all came together,” said Townsend. “The coach hit us with a lot, but it was good for us. It got intense, but the team was dedicated.”

“Of course, there’s some drama when you’re out there on the mat,” said Hattier, “but we got over it. You really learn to adapt and trust each other. It’s like a big family now.”

Johnson already has a start on next year, with 28 cheerleaders lined up for the football season. This summer, she’ll take her squad to camp at Salisbury State University for the annual all-Americans tryouts.

Murray, Townsend and Hattier were selected to the all-American team to travel to Miami for the 2008 Orange Bowl, although Hattier had previous obligations with a European trip. The three hope to repeat their performance and help bring recognition to the team once again in the 2008-2009 year.

“It’s going to be a very new squad,” Johnson said, “mostly freshmen and sophomores. We’re going to use that to take it up to next step. I always tell the team, ‘Progression before perfection,’ and that’s how we have to train.”