New rules for cheer squads

Not everyone is happy that cheerleading has become a varsity sport


September 18, 2005|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

There was no sideline, so they made do with the tight space on the bleachers, moving only their feet and arms as they belted out their cheers.

Rooting on Howard High School's volleyball team for the first time last week, the cheerleading squad was somewhat hesitant and unsure of its moves.

"When am I not supposed to cheer?" wondered Ciara Gissentaner, a senior co-captain of the 20-member squad.

"When they serve," a few cheerleaders called out.

Welcome to the new world of cheerleading in Howard County - where the football field and the basketball court are not a cheerleader's only playgrounds. Cheerleading is now a varsity sport here, ushering in new rules.

"The traditional days of cheerleading - going to all football games and showing up for nothing else - is over," said Mike Williams, the school system's coordinator of athletics.

The most notable change - and the one that has caused the most grief among many cheerleaders - is the limitation on football games.

Under Title IX, which in part provides equal opportunity for male and female athletics in schools, cheerleading squads must cheer at the same number of boys and girls events and mix up the type of events they attend.

In practical terms, cheerleading squads have had to give up attending all football games to meet a 20-game requirement per season (fall and winter).

A typical fall season schedule could look like this: five football games, five boys and girls soccer matches each, two field hockey games and three volleyball matches. Some squads also attend cross country meets. In this format, the cheerleaders are at 10 boys events and 10 girls events. Home games have preference.

"The disappointing part is not cheering at all the football games," said Ashleigh Bouchelion, 17, a senior co-captain of Reservoir High's varsity squad. "It's the American way."

While cheerleaders from Howard to Reservoir High say they welcome the opportunity to spread school spirit to other sports, they, nonetheless, lament the loss of camaraderie with the football players and the chance to cheer at away games.

"We had such a good bond with the football team," said senior Serena Mendis, another Reservoir co-captain. "We miss it."

The shift is not unprecedented. The Howard County school system is following the lead of several school districts in Maryland that recognize cheerleading as a sport, including Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Carroll counties.

The change means more than recognizing a cheerleader's athletic skills and shedding the stereotype of girls in cute, short skirts.

Rather, cheerleaders must adhere to the same state and county rules governing high school sports, even though the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association has not sanctioned cheerleading as a sport statewide.

"I think, in some cases, they were beginning to get far astray, like in travel," said Ned Sparks, executive director of MPSSAA, which regulates interscholastic athletics. "It needed to have some accountability. It's natural to put it under the athletic department."

In part, that means holding tryouts and practice after Aug. 15 and sticking to a 600-mile round-trip travel restriction - a contrast to how cheerleading operated in Howard County for many years.

Previously a club activity, squads in Howard had leeway to hold tryouts in May or June for the next school year, attend cheerleading camp and practice during the summer, and travel as far as Florida for numerous competitions.

Besides county and regional contests, the squads are allowed to participate in only three additional competitions per season, and they must be nonprofit.

"We weren't jumping up and down and saying, `yeah,' " about the new status, said Daneace Jeffery, Howard High's coach for the past six years. "Up until now, we had the freedom to do what we wanted to do."

It has been an adjustment for coaches, particularly getting acceptance from their counterparts in other sports.

"The [other] teams will get used to us being there," said Beetle Rice, who coaches the varsity squad at Long Reach High School. "They're not used to the noise, and the noise is a distraction to them. Volleyball asked us to cheer only when they switch sides. I said no because I'm not having my girls stay for two hours and just cheer five times."

Rice said she is working with other coaches to come up with a reasonable plan.

Michelle Dean, Reservoir's coach who is coordinating the countywide program, said cheerleading's transition to sports status was inevitable, with many school systems joining the evolution.

"You have to go with the times," she said. "In the future, it will be the way it is."

There are advantages to the new system, including equal stipends for cheerleading coaches (nearly $4,000), guaranteed practice space at school and money from the school system's budget to help pay for uniforms.

"I like the accountability," said Rice, Long Reach's coach. "The pay is good. I think it's better for the girls because they're more recognized now."

Inside Howard High's gym, the cheerleading squad tried following the school's fierce volleyball competition against Mount Hebron High.

"We don't know anything about volleyball," Gissentaner said.

They improvised their cheers by limiting their aerobatic moves, left behind their pompoms and weathered the heat inside the gym.

"Maybe we could think of new cheers," said Erin Brennan, a senior co-captain. "We're doing a lot of cheers we could clap to because we can't move."

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