The Franklin cheer squad had about an hour to rework a routine the team had been practicing for the past two months.
Less than a week before the Hockomock League Championships, and with Sectionals and States bearing down on the defending Division 1 state champions, the Panthers scrambled Nov. 5 on what was supposed to be a day off to learn a whole new routine after a member of the squad was diagnosed with mononucleosis.
“We had to change everything,” Franklin senior captain Kenzie Muirhead said after the impromptu morning workout on a day with no school. “It’s very hard to make changes like that. Some people’s whole routine was different from what we had been practicing since August. So it’s stressful. But we know what we have to do.”
What the Panthers had to do was persevere both physically and mentally in a sport that requires agility, athleticism, conditioning, and strength to compete as one of the state’s perennial title contenders.
“People, honestly, don’t believe how hard we practice,” Muirhead said. “Some think that all we do is wave pom-poms, and cheer for the football team, and talk to people. They don’t know we practice three hours a day, or that we get there a half-hour early and run so we can get some warmth in our bodies just to start practice, and so we can boost our stamina up so we can last through the routine. A lot of teams at the school practice an hour or two. But everything we do involves everyone on the team, so it takes much longer.”
Franklin will be looking to make it back-to-back fall championship titles in Division 1, while Whitman-Hanson is the defending fall champion in Division 2. Dracut has won five straight fall championships in Division 3, and Rockland is the defending Division 4 champion in the all-girls division. Wachusett is the defending Division 1 co-ed state champion, while Hudson won last year’s Division 2 co-ed title.
The Hockomock League Championships take place Sunday, Nov. 10, at Oliver Ames High School in Easton. Fall Regionals are Nov. 17 at Shrewsbury, Plymouth North, and North Andover; and States are Nov. 24 at Worcester State University. There is also a winter competitive cheer season.
“It takes a lot of repetition,” said Scott Rigoli, who has coached 14 fall and winter state champions combined in his 10 years as Dracut head coach. “You do the routine over, and over, and over, so that when the competition comes you can do it the correct way. As a coach, you can’t be afraid to push them to work hard. They are great athletes and they are capable of it, but they have to be pushed, and push themselves, to get to the next level. You can have the physical talent, but you need the mental clarity to be able to do it when it counts.”
It’s the mental aspect of the sport that can be most daunting when months of preparation come down to the 150-second routine packed with extreme energy, and when any small missteps can set off a chain reaction that sabotages all that work.
“The skills are very hard and the athletes are elite,” said Franklin coach Doni Gill. “But by the time the competition comes your body knows what to do. It’s the mental aspect of it that pumps you up and gets you through the routine.”
Dracut senior captain Alexia Murray said that was her biggest hurdle when she transitioned from cheering in Dracut Pop Warner to competitive cheering at Dracut High. But she said that while there is pressure to be at your best for yourself and your teammates at all times, the fierce bonds made within the sport help the perennially successful programs like Dracut thrive.
“I had to condition myself to be able to make it through the practices and the routines,” Murray said. “My teammates helped me a lot by being supportive and pushing me through it. I can be very hard on myself. But when I got down on myself, the older cheerleaders were there to lift me up. You call of these girls your sisters because you have to be there for each other.”
Rigoli said that at a small school like Dracut — with less than 350 girls — the goal is to get girls thinking about cheer in middle school so there is a base of skill and desire to join the team in high school. He said while experience is always helpful, the Dracut coaching staff does not make cuts, and is willing to train any girl who wants to put in the effort and embrace the culture of the sport.
Gill said building that competitive culture is what allowed her to coach a six-time state champion in Grafton, and something that had to be fostered when she came to Franklin three years ago.
“You could tell there was a lot of talent,” said Gill. “But they had to grow to the point where they could work as hard as you need to work. It takes a lot of dedication. You have to handle school work, your private life, and cheer. Then, at this time of the year, it’s cheer.”
Muirhead said she is confident that determination will allow the Panthers to pull through in defense of their title despite the mad rush to perfect a new routine.
“We have to come in every day ready to work,” she said. “If you are not working as a team, and don’t have that close bond, then nothing really works out. With every stunt, everyone has to try as much as everyone else. Everyone has to put in the same work to be successful.”Scott Souza can be reached at ScottSouza@journalist.com.