When you attend a Pop Warner football game, you might not realize that you’re seeing more than two teams on the field.
The first, of course, is the football team. But there’s another group of athletes performing, and they also practice, work hard and compete against opponents at the conference, regional and national levels. And they’re part of every game.
They’re the cheerleaders.
Cheerleading isn’t simply a side activity that complements the football programs. It’s an organized sport in its own right that requires patience and skill to compete at a high level. And in the Pee Wee division, the South Pasco Predators have demonstrated their ability to not only compete, but stand out: The team took first place at the conference level, compiling the highest score and earning a trip to regionals.
But there were more reasons to cheer for the Predators. At the regional competition, the team again placed first and again had the highest score of any squad (including teams from the rest of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia). That accomplishment has earned them a spot in the national competition, which will be this week at Walt Disney World in Orlando.
For Coach Kayla Hensley, the team’s success validates not just the Pee Wee Predators, but the sport of cheerleading.
“If you don’t have any experience watching cheerleading, they make it look so easy that it doesn’t seem like it should be a sport,” she said. “That’s the real challenge of cheerleading. You’re supposed to make it look easy and effortless.”
People see cheerleaders from professional football teams — who mostly perform dance routines — and they think that’s all there is to it, Hensley said. But competitively, there’s a lot of skill necessary, a lot of dedication required and a lot of preparation and practice to perform the team’s complex routines correctly.
Hensley seems to have found the formula for cheerleading success: This is the second team she’s coached that reached nationals (she coached Junior Pee Wee for the Predators last year, and that team placed fourth at the national competition). She’s also a former Predator herself, cheerleading in her youth for the team before becoming a cheerleader for Land O’ Lakes High School.
Hensley said that she feels more stress as a coach than when she was doing the routines herself.
“It’s way more nerve-racking on the coaching side of things, because you have no control over their performance,” she said. “You’re not out there so you can’t do anything to help them.”
But her athletes think she’s done a lot to help them get where they are today.
“Kayla, she’s amazing. I really like her,” said Kylee Brown, one of the team’s cheerleaders. “She encourages us. Every time we go on the stage, she gives us a pep talk.”
Hensley also reminds the team that no matter how the national competition turns out, they should be proud of making it this far and enjoy the level of success the Predators have already attained, Brown said.
Another cheerleader, Elizabeth Harmon, said that Henley’s experience has helped them recognize what’s important to judges and how to maximize their points to have the best showing possible.
“She knows what’s expected, and she knows how many points you can get (for different parts of a routine) so she knows how to get us a really high score,” Harmon said.
She admits to be a little nervous about competing at nationals, but also is excited about the chance to perform at Disney World.
Hensley will be proud of the team regardless of how they finish. But that day will be a mix of pride and anxiety, and the coach might even be more nervous than the girls who will be competing.
“The nervous feeling that I used to get right before I went on the mat, I have the whole entire day of the competition,” she said. “Whenever I watch them, I just have a huge smile on my face and my eyes get watery. I feel like I’m watching my own kids out there.”