After a long history of struggles, the Land O’ Lakes High School varsity girls competitive cheerleading team is finding its groove.
The Gators won the prestigious ‘Best of Pasco’ Sunshine Athletic Conference Cheerleading Competition on Nov. 16.
At the event, hosted by Land O’ Lakes High, the Gators claimed a score of 78.4, defeating 12 other county high schools. The school’s crosstown rival, Sunlake High, scored 76.2, to earn second place.
The last time Land O’ Lakes won a ‘Best of Pasco’ meet was so long ago that Gator cheerleaders and coaches can’t be sure when it was.
“It’s a very big deal for us,” said third-year coach Ashley Linden. “It’s been a very long time,” she added, noting it’s been at least since the early 2000s.
Senior team captain Sarah Spitzig thinks it might have never happened before.
In any case, it marks a striking accomplishment for a program that had not garnered much of a reputation through the years.
Spitzig said it’s the first competition the Gators have won during her four years in the program. “We’re all super excited about it. It’s just boosted the team’s confidence a lot,” she said.
The coach added of the ‘Best of Pasco’ achievement: “Seeing them be successful is just the best feeling, because some of them have been there for competitions where they didn’t do so great, and they still stuck it out and still kept coming back.”
Like other cheer programs, the Gators 2½-minute routine combines an array of acrobatic and athletic tumbling, stunts, cheers and dances — to the sound of upbeat music.
Linden described the team’s routine as “creative” combined with “a lot of really great tumbling.”
Many of those advanced skills were fine-tuned at summer Universal Cheerleaders Association camp, Linden said.
The offseason reps must’ve helped, as Linden said the team’s execution of the routine was “clean” and “sharp” at the countywide meet.
The team’s newfound taste of victory extends beyond just technical skills, however.
Linden said it also can be explained by better attitudes and coachability overall, plus more pronounced leadership from a quartet of team captains (Spitzig, along with seniors Laura Madison and Gabriela Miller, and junior Emma Runkel).
All those qualities, the coach said, “makes or breaks a team.”
“Everything has just taken like a huge turn for the better,” said Linden, a former high school cheerleader herself with experience coaching All-Star and recreational teams. “This group of girls is just different; they want it this year.”
It’s an assessment Spitzig can agree with.
“It’s less about the skills sometimes, but more about the attitudes,” the cheerleader said. “We won even without the highest skills that we could’ve been doing; it was more just about attitude coming together and working for it.”
Hand in hand with that is a stable and dedicated coaching staff, as Linden and assistant Gators cheer coach Karlee Roach have been working in tandem for three years to rebuild the program; Roach actually served as the team’s head coach the previous two seasons, then reversed roles with Linden this year.
When it comes to their efforts, the coaching duo goes the extra mile, cheerleaders say.
Runkel noted that the coaches “care so much for us.”
She added: “Personally speaking, I had such a negative attitude my freshman year that they really helped me grow as a person, and personality-wise, I’ve grown so much from them. “They’ve always been there supporting us, on and off the mat,” she added.
Spitzig concurred: “We’ve all just developed into more of a family having them here. They give up so much time, we just appreciate it.”
The signs of a budding 2019-2020 campaign were in the works toward the end of last year as the Gators placed fifth in the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) Class 1A medium division state championships.
At the beginning of the season, Linden felt the team had the opportunity to build on that.
She was optimistic despite the fact that 13 seniors graduated and the team would be relying heavily upon four freshman flyers.
The current 25-member roster consists of five seniors, 13 juniors, three sophomore and five freshman.
“I’ve been saying it since the beginning of the season that, ‘This is our season,’” Linden said.
“People probably thought we were going to be in a rebuilding year, and here we came. To win (‘Best of Pasco’), no one expected that. We kind of came out from under.”
And, what made the ‘Best of Pasco’ victory even more special — was earning bragging rights over a Sunlake cheer program that for years has been a local powerhouse.
“They’ve always been out for us and always proved that they’re better than us, but this year we’re actually coming up on top of them,” Runkel said.
“I’ve heard they’re coming back for us — but we’re coming back for them,” Runkel said.
2019-2020 Land O’ Lakes competitive cheer roster
Head coach: Ashley Linden
Assistant coach: Karlee Roach
Team manager: Mayah Ocasio
- Christina Agovino
- Mia Allen
- Lexi Brown
- Ariana Butler
- Aysiah DeBernardi
- Peyton Fields
- Elizabeth Harmon
- Alex Heck
- Grace Huff
- Maddy Huff
- Lauren Jones
- Madelyn Macaluso
- Laura Madison
- Gabriela Miller
- Leah Mixson
- Gianna Ocasio
- Katy Quandt
- Paige Randall
- Emma Runkel
- Skyler Sander
- Sarah Spitzig
- Camryn Steele
- Alyssa VanMeter
- Nevaeh Vercellona
- Kaitlyn Wall
Published November 27, 2019