By Jeff Odom
Freedom’s competitive cheerleading coach Linda Martinez has a reputation among her team for being tough when it comes to hitting the books.
The fifth-year coach demands weekly grade reports and a minimum grade of a C from her squad in order for athletes to compete. While to some cheerleaders it may come as a surprise, it paid dividends for the team last season as the Patriots had the highest combined grade point average of any other public school in Hillsborough County — 3.429.
“Academics is big, and Linda makes sure our grades are on point,” said senior Caitlin Jefferis, who has cheered on the varsity squad all four years. “We get punishments and have to sit out if we don’t meet (the requirements), so it’s a good motivation.”
Academics are the team’s top priority from the start of the season, Martinez said. Her message is simple: no grades, no cheering.
“Every week if they come to the game and their grades are not Cs or better, then they’re not allowed to cheer, and it’s a big deal to cheer,” Martinez said. “It’s important to them to be able have cheered every Friday night (at football games), and I think that that just carries through the seasons.”
Outside of academics, Freedom shined in competition last season, claiming a pair of firsts for the program. The Patriots won the Region 3 large varsity championship and beat out all 26 other schools for the county title.
The squad took first place at Spoto in its regional opener Dec. 4, and Martinez said she feels like the group can duplicate the success of last year, despite the loss of many seniors.
“They have done amazing in comparison to what I thought things were going to be,” Martinez said. “They have a strong core of girls that are still there who have been with me for several years and kind of know the drill to pull the new freshmen along, and they’re some of our strongest. Our fingers are crossed, and we’re hoping for the best.”
Junior Molly Chang, who is entering her second year at the varsity level, said it was a big deal to enjoy the early success and wants it to carry over to the new campaign.
“It was like fame,” Chang joked. “At a lot of the competitions other teams would come up to us and be like ‘You guys are definitely going to win.’ They didn’t even see anybody else competing and thought that. So, hopefully we have the same luck as we did last year, this year.”
Her teammate Malekai Chinaner added it was positive to everybody on the team to get a feel for success.
“I know what we were put through to get a championship and win,” said Chinaner, a junior. “It was a big impact on me, because it was my first time too, and a lot of girls were ready to win, and me and Molly pushed through it and fought for our spots.”
Freedom will host the Region 3 meet Jan. 26. It is the first time the Patriots will host the event.