When Coach Lisa Freburger told her Chesapeake High School cheerleaders they had the chance to perform during halftime at the Gator Bowl, the mouths of the girls on the 25-member varsity squad just fell open.
Performing at one of the most prestigious college football games in the country? In front of a crowd of nearly 71,000 people?
"It was a pause of silence and then a 'nuh-uhhh,'" said Ashley Elliott, recalling the jaw-dropping moment a few weeks ago. She is a senior on the team and Freburger's stepdaughter.
"We've never done anything outside of Maryland," said Rachel Ferrer, another senior. "And now we're going to the Gator Bowl?"
Chesapeake High in Pasadena is one of two schools in Maryland planning to travel to Jacksonville, Fla., for the New Year's Day game that will be watched by millions of people on television. The other is Middletown High School in Frederick County. Both schools qualified for consideration for the Gator Bowl because of their performances in recent competitions. As part of the trip, the girls also will perform in the televised Gator Bowl Parade the day before the game.
For senior Danielle Burgess, it's a double bonus. Not only does she love to cheer, she comes from a family of football fans.
"I watch Ravens games all the time," said Burgess, who's been cheering since freshman year. "I think my dad's jealous."
The only thing standing in the way: Both Maryland teams must raise the money for the trip, which will cost about $1,000 per girl. The money pays for hotel, round-trip bus fare, food, costumes, tickets to the game and a New Year's Eve dinner dance.
Freburger and her two assistant coaches, Jen Kobrin and Joe Vecchioni, held a parent organization meeting to get the OK from parents to move forward with the estimated 13-hour drive to Jacksonville.
"It's just a great honor and opportunity," said Kobrin, who used to be a cheerleader for Chesapeake. "The girls are super excited about it."
Freburger, who has another daughter on the squad, said the team will hold a series of fundraisers and look for corporate sponsors. The first fundraiser will be from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday at Five Guys Burgers and Fries at Lake Shore Plaza in Pasadena. The restaurant will donate 20 percent of sales that night to the team. The girls also plan to sell candy bars at local grocers. One parent is making a quilt to raffle.
Chesapeake High's cheerleading squad won the county's winter team championship and the state cheerleading title in February. The wins caught the attention of Bowl Games of America, a company that organizes halftime performances at college football bowl games. BGA invites cheerleading squads that have won state titles or have been referred as good teams, said Kristin Kidman, BGA's performance director for the Gator Bowl. Middletown High was a referral, she said.
Kidman said squads must excel at all levels of performance, including jumping and doing stunts. They also have to have lots of school spirit, good grades and be active in their communities.
"We want teams that love to perform and love to be out there," said Kidman, who used to cheer at her alma mater, Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. "They're the ones who are going to enjoy this the most."
This year, 28 teams from 22 states have been invited. That number might fluctuate, depending on which teams raise enough money to go, Kidman said. Liberty High School in Carroll County went to the Gator Bowl in 2006, the last time a Maryland school participated.
Members of the Chesapeake High squad will get a DVD in the mail showing them the performance they need to perfect. Girls are expected to learn the routines on their own, Freburger said.
Teams must arrive by 6 p.m. Dec. 29 so they can get in enough practice with the choreographer the next day.
Because the team is strong in "stunting" and tumbling, members are not going to have any problem learning the routines on their own before they arrive in Florida, Vecchioni said. The girls are focusing now on practicing for the county's fall team championship.
"Their strength is that they lack major weaknesses," Vecchioni said. "Beyond that, it's trying to keep it fresh."
Julia Howley, a sophomore who made the varsity team last year, said the squad regularly gets together for sleepovers and dinners. She said they have a family-like bond that helps during performances when a teammate must balance on someone's shoulders and then fall backward into a teammate's waiting arms.
"I just feel like I can trust everybody," Howley said.
According to Nielsen ratings, more than 2.9 million households tuned in to the Gator Bowl last January. Burgess said she is more excited than nervous.
"It's kind of overwhelming," Burgess said. "You're going to be on TV with millions of people watching you doing what you love to do."