Bishop Ireton cheerleaders celebrate multiple successes at CCA tournament

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Bishop Ireton cheerleaders celebrate multiple successes at CCA tournament
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By Chris Teale (Courtesy photo)

For every football and basketball game, the Bishop Ireton cheerleading squad must learn around 60 cheers with which to rouse spectators, in addition to a halftime routine that combines cheering, dancing and acrobatics.

Not only are those routines for entertainment and improving the cheerleaders’ skills, but they also build toward the Cardinals’ efforts in regional and national competitive cheerleading competitions.

The work that started last summer paid off February 27, as Ireton won first place in the medium varsity division in the Christian Cheerleaders of America’s national competition in Winston-Salem, N.C. The Cardinals also took home the 2016 National Grand Champion trophy as the top-scoring team from 65 schools in four divisions. It was the first national honor for Ireton since 2011.

Competitive cheerleading is divided into four divisions depending on the size of a squad: the small division has up to 12 performers; the medium division 13 to 17; large 18 to 30 and extra-large 31 to 36. Routines are two minutes 30 seconds long and take two forms: all-cheer, which means there is no music and no dancing, and cheer and music, which means one minute of cheering and one and a half minutes of music. Ireton won both routine categories.

“Sometimes cheerleaders don’t get a lot of recognition, or people don’t recognize how intense it really is,” said Ireton head coach Angela Hope-Eskew. “For them to go out and do it all year long and for people to think they’re pretty good, but then go to nationals and take it all, it’s amazing how these girls are.”

The training program begins in the summer, when Hope-Eskew hosts summer practice one night a week in June and two nights a week in July. As well as focusing on the basics of cheerleading, the team does plenty of conditioning work to get into shape. After tryouts in August, they practice three days a week, including devoting a great deal of time to tumbling and the more acrobatic moves.

“We get 2:30 [to perform], and these girls for 2:30 are non-stop,” Hope-Eskew said. “These routines have basket tosses, dancing, tumbling, flips and backhand springs and rolls and layouts and all kinds of things. Lifting girls, tossing girls, throwing girls, running, dancing and tumbling. It’s intense, and [they’re] cheering all at the same time.”

Hope-Eskew said devising a routine is a constantly evolving process. She said she often will use parts of halftime performances, while execution is key to ensure a high score from the judges. Preparation also was complicated somewhat this season as Hope-Eskew took maternity leave, but coach Sheldon Bullock from the Maryland Twisters cheerleading team helped out during her absence.

“I work really hard to create a routine that fits the needs and skills of our team,” she said. “It’s important that you don’t do anything that’s too hard, because the way you win at nationals is that you execute a difficult routine with lots of stunting and you execute it perfectly.”

Competition season began for the cheerleaders on December 5 at the Virginia regional tournament at Richmond Christian School in Chesterfield. The Blue Ridge classics competition followed on February 6 at Liberty University in Lynchburg.

Teams can earn a qualification bid to nationals from either the regional or classic tournament, depending on how highly they score. This year, the Cardinals’ bid to nationals came from the regional competition, but Hope-Eskew said they used classics as another opportunity to enjoy a competitive environment.

At nationals, teams nominate juniors and seniors to be cheer scholars if their grade point averages are above 3.5. This year, every Cardinals junior and senior was nominated. Going up against the best teams from across the country, the national tournament was quite the experience for Ireton.

“The tough thing about nationals is you’re competing against the best of the best and you don’t know what you’re up against,” Hope-Eskew said. “You have no idea what these teams look like, what their skill levels are. You know they’re going to be good, but you don’t know if yours is better or if your skills are stronger.”

Putting together a squad each year can be challenging. Hope-Eskew noted that given the rigorous academic environment at Ireton, some cheerleaders are forced to leave the team to focus on schoolwork.

Everyone becomes part of what Hope-Eskew described as a “Cheer Family,” with seniors instructed to look after freshmen and help improve their skills. She said it is crucial to get students involved as early as possible, and while she said she does not cut squad members very often, there is an expectation they must work hard.

“When there is an open house, we show up at the open house like all the other sports and we try to get girls signed up and interested,” Hope-Eskew said. “The key is to get them interested from the beginning, because cheerleading is a very intimidating thing. You say, ‘Oh, we’re the national champions,’ and freshmen may think they’re never going to make the team. And that’s not what I want anybody to think. I want everybody to think they’ve got an opportunity here.”

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