Day of good cheer drives Long Reach

November 04, 2007|By Tyeesha Dixon | Tyeesha Dixon,Sun reporter

Elisabeth Rice took a deep breath and held it as she waited for the judges to decide. As head coach of the Long Reach High School varsity cheerleading squad, she knew how hard the girls had practiced for this moment.

A top-three finish in the Fall Cheerleading Championships would mean the six days of practice per week were paying off. The team had finished third at an invitational competition the week before, but it had not placed in the fall county championships during the six years that Rice had been coach.

About 600 people packed the Howard High School gymnasium Thursday night to watch the 12 county high schools battle for the county title and the opportunity to advance to the state regional tournament. There was tension in the air as the judges compared scores, and many of the 200-plus cheerleaders laughed as they danced to hip-hop tunes blaring from the speakers.

But the ruckus began to fade as the announcer prepared to give the results.

"In third place ... the Long Reach Ligh--."

That's all anyone heard. The announcer was no match for the screaming, as the Long Reach girls and coaches jumped up and down and embraced one another.

"I was just shocked at first because I didn't realize it was us," said team co-captain Briana Rhim, a 17-year-old senior. "I just started crying. I'm really excited to see what's going to happen to us next."

What's next is Wednesday's regional competition at North County High School in Anne Arundel County. From there, the top four region finishers advance to the state championships Nov. 13, also at North County.

Atholton finished second and Howard earned top honors -- the first time the up-and-coming team had placed in the fall championship since cheerleading became a varsity sport in fall 2005, Howard coach Jodi Trumbull said.

After being awarded the first-place trophy, the Howard team made a circle and chanted, "Whose house? Our house!" to help celebrate its victory.

"The girls have been working really, really hard to do this," Trumbull said. "They definitely earned it, but they're very modest.

Howard finished with 253 points, followed by Atholton, 247.5, and Long Reach, 219.5. The teams finished in the same order the week before at an invitational meet.

Howard senior captain Rachael Pavornick said the team will focus on polishing its routine before Wednesday's regional tournament.

"We're all just working extra hard and cleaning up everything we have and making sure our skills are on point," said Pavornick.

"We're proud of the other teams that placed because Howard County has really been stepping it up lately," she added. "Cheerleading is really starting to make its mark in the county and getting the recognition that it deserves."

Atholton had won the past three fall county titles, including in 2004, when the sport did not have varsity status. Brooke Ziscarra said her team was satisfied with Thursday's results and that its members look forward to the regionals.

"We've won the past three years, so there was a lot of pressure this year," said Ziscarra, a junior. "I think we did pretty good, and we're excited for next week."

During last week's county championship, the cheerleaders -- most donning perfectly tied hair ribbons and orange, purple or baby-blue eyeshadow to match their uniforms -- offered a "Good luck!" as they watched the other teams try to shake off their nerves and show off what they've practiced all season. Each team performed for a maximum of 2 1/2 minutes before the judges.

During her time as coach, Rice steadily has upgraded the Long Reach program. She brought in experienced assistant coaches, including a former Baltimore Ravens cheerleader and safety judge. Another assistant is a former high school cheerleading coach with 14 years of experience.

She also encouraged parents to enroll their daughters in private tumbling lessons.

Rice has made it a point to find the best talent at the Columbia school.

Rhim, for example, did not try out as a freshman. But after a few girls told Rice that they saw Rhim tumbling in the gym, Rice went out and found her. Four years later, Rhim a co-captain.

Long Reach has five freshmen on its 21-member roster, including 14-year-old Ploy Saengpet, who serves as the flier on the team.

"I like to go out there and show them what we've got," said Saengpet, who acknowledged being nervous before she is thrown into the air.

After the results were announced, Rice said, she was surprised to see that perennial contender River Hill had not placed in the top three.

But she wasn't complaining.

"It's time for a new regime," she said with a smile.

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