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It just wasn’t working, only moments before the ladies would receive their only opportunity to repeat for the first time in school history.
There were slips, lost holds, out-of-sync movements. The stunt failed again and again. Something just wasn’t right, and it’s not as if they would have a second down or a third down or a fourth down to fix the issue.
Three minutes. No timeouts. One chance.
“I was actually scared to death because we had dropped our stunt four straight times during warmups,” senior team member Kayley Miller admitted. “That’s when Jordan (Stahl) said that we weren’t going to try it again. She said that we had experienced a bad warmup before but that we were still able to go out there and be successful in the routine.
“We went out there and hoped for the best, and we knew that we had done it thousands of times before,” she continued. “Luckily, we went out there, and it was perfect.”
“I believe they witnessed the excitement surrounding boys’ victory in the state championship, and we didn’t want them to be the only ones to win the state title,” head coach Shawna Shepherd explained. “Last year we were the last team to compete, but this year we went first, and we really didn’t have great warmups.
“And the night before we had a little bit of an issue, and Saturday before we took the floor, something just didn’t go right, but that’s when Kayley and Jordan looked around and saw the, ‘freshman look.’ That’s when the leadership came in because the seniors knew at that point we had to step it up. And they did, and when they went on the floor and did what they did, I could not have asked for more.”
And for the first time in Wheeling Park history the high school’s cheering squad captured a second consecutive Class AAA state title. It was also the first time in school history when two athletic state championships were claimed by team’s representing Ohio County’s consolidated high school.
“We may have been a little social-media happy, but it was the first time in Wheeling Park history when we repeated,” said head coach Shawna Shepherd. “It was pretty special, and it’s been a great couple of weeks to be a Patriot.
“It’s taken a lot of work, I can tell you that. I doubt anyone realizes how hard these girls have worked to make this happen,” the coach explained. “So when it was announced that we had repeated, I think it made all of that hard work worth every minute.”
Wheeling Park’s cheering squad comprises 15 members, and the group had practiced six days a week since August. The routine 13 of the cheerleaders performed was choreographed by Brian Faulkner.
“The routine is not easy, to say the least,” Miller admitted. “We do all kind of different skills; we do stunts where we put girls in the air with two bases and others with three bases; and there is also the tumbling.
“The competition is based on a point system that allows for the earning of bonus points so we did a lot of those skills as well,” she continued. “But that means we had to do all of those extra skills on top of all of the tumbling, and we have to look super excited the entire time. But, when you are doing really well, the excitement part is not very hard at all.”
“When the girls are in a gym with just me,” Shepherd said, “it can be hard to get that excitement level, but then when they are in front of a crowd like what we had in Charleston, it seems to take care of that issue.
“I definitely have to give kudos to our fans, our parents, our support system from the middle schools and up,” the 1995 graduate of Wheeling continued. “They were all there for us, and that made a huge difference for us.”
Last December the Wheeling Park cheerleaders were the final squad to compete for the Triple-A crown, but this year these Lady Patriots drew the first slot. The fans, and even Shepherd, were confident perfection had taken place, but seven more schools followed before the final announcement echoed over the speakers inside the Charleston Civic Center.
“No matter how great you think your routine was, you cannot be sure because there could have been a hand in the wrong place, and that would have resulted in a reduction that could knock the team out of contention,” Miller explained. “So when we heard our names called as the state champions, our entire team erupted.
“That feeling is really indescribable. That’s the moment when you know that all of your hard work and the hours in the gym were all worth it. It all really paid off,” she said. “You really only get one shot after practicing almost every day for three hours at a time on the same routine. It’s a lot of stress, but that one moment made it all worth it.”
“The lyrics to one of the songs that we used during our pyramid were: ‘You can take a swing at my ego; you can take a run at my crown.’ And it was kind of our thought process because last year after we had won, there were some people who insisted that it was a fluke, a one-time-thing, and that we had gotten lucky,” Shepherd said. “I don’t think people can say that now.
“I have always been told that it is harder to defend your title than it is to win the first time,” Shepherd said. “I think the girls handled the pressure very well, but they believed that since we won last year, they had to win again this year. And after the boys, I think that’s when we all caught fire.”
Throughout the 2015 high school football season local fans heard an acronym associated with Wheeling Park’s team, one that featured first-team all-staters Elijah Bell, Savion Johnson, Austin Curnes, Dustin Dominguez, and Jamez Coles and second-teamers Cross Wilkinson and Clay McDonald. The alphabet soup is, “TWBAI,” and it represents, “Team. Win. Brotherhood. All. In.”
Switch out the “B” for an “S” for, “Sisterhood,” and Miller believes it fits the West Virginia Class AAA cheering champs just as well.
“Our team is very, very close just like the football team is,” said Miller. “We are always together. It’s very rare if you see one of us without at least one other member of the team. We’re at practice together, of course, but we also go to dinners, and we have sleepovers.
“A lot of us on the team have cheered together for a while. Natalie, another senior on the team, and I have been cheering together for the past seven years.”
Unlike the football team, though, the cheerleaders’ season continued without much delay as the Wheeling Park hoopsters took to the court a mere few days after their historical outing in Charleston. Last night inside the “Palace on the Hill” at Wheeling Park High, the champion football players and cheerleaders were honored along with basketball head coach Michael Jebbia (WVSSAC Coach of the Year) during halftime.
But there’s more unfinished business for these young ladies, and that includes another repeat during the upcoming OVAC Cheering Championship at Wesbanco Arena on Feb. 6.
“We were ready to go for the state competition; that’s for sure, and I am sure these girls will be ready for the OVACs, too,” Shepherd said. “We have won (the Class 5-A) each year since Kayley was a freshman, so I know it will be very important to her, too.
“The best part about these girls is that they take nothing for granted, so they know they are going to have to work very hard on the new routine so they can make it happen,” she added. “There is a lot of competition in the OVACs because there are a lot of very talented squads in this Valley. So that’s the plan between now and then.”
(Photos by Marty Fox)