One thing North County High School cheerleaders make clear from the start: You won't find stereotypical, snobby bimbos in their ranks.
"The normal stereotype of a cheerleader is a snobby, blond girl who won't talk to you," said Erin Steel, 17, a senior on the varsity squad. "That's not us."
To hear members of the championship squad tell it, you won't find cheerleaders fussing with their hair and makeup minutes before a competition or game. You won't hear catty remarks.
And you won't see anyone chastised for making a mistake.
Before each event, the 16 cheerleaders sit in a circle and pray that they do their best and that no one gets hurt in an acrobatic routine. When they disagree, they sit in a circle and hash it out.
They've learned not to dwell on the mistakes, but rather to let them drop and move on.
"We all go for the same goal," said Christina Moseley, 16, captain of the squad, which won first place this month in a regional competition at Old Mill High School.
That contest qualified the team for the Eastern Cheerleading Association's competition March 21 in Williamsburg, Va., in which teams from up and down the East Coast will attend.
The squad also took first place in the 1993 Cheer Classic Championship Dec. 12 at the University of Maryland and last fall at a Can-Am qualifying competition at Glen Burnie High School.
Such events have given the squad a reputation around the state as the team to beat, helping to elevate their status in the minds of many of their peers from that of sideshow performer to athlete.
"You feel proud when you're walking through the halls," said Karen Emrich, 17, a senior.
"The competitions make you feel like this is more like a sport than when you're cheering at a game," Erin said.
At the competitions, cheerleaders are judged on appearance, execution, difficulty, spirit and creativity.
They perform a crowd participation cheer, a dance routine and stunts, in one hoisting members of the squad to perch on fellow cheerleaders' hands.
Margaret Smith, head cheerleading coach and a retired Brooklyn Park High School science teacher, said she motivates her team by acting as a role model.
"I care about them and try to set a good example," Ms. Smith said. "If they sell pizza, I sell pizza. If they wash cars, I wash cars. I don't ask them to do anything I don't do. I want them to be the best they can be, academically, with their parents and in the community."
The cheerleaders take Ms. Smith's rules seriously.
She expects them to achieve higher than the 2.0 grade point average the school requires of athletes. She forbids smoking or drinking. And she requires neatness, at practice and at events. They must keep their hair pulled back and their fingernails short.
Most of the girls participate in other school activities too -- student government, yearbook, and band -- but "cheerleading is the main priority," Karen said.