ANAHEIM, Calif. — Does a 4-foot trophy count as a carry-on item or does it need its own seat?
Either way, the Central High School cheerleaders had an extra passenger of sorts on their way back from the national cheer competition in Anaheim last weekend.
The team took first place in the United Spirits Association National Championship for varsity show cheer novice non-tumbling.
“I think everybody is still in shock,” said coach Megan Smith. “There were 17 other teams that qualified in our division.”
It was the first time the team competed on a national level.
Smith took over the CHS cheer program eight years ago. For the first four, she volunteered, then was hired to coach during football season.
She volunteered her time to get the girls to this competition, as there is no paid position for winter, when these opportunities occur.
“Almost half the team are seniors,” Smith said. “They reminded me that when they were freshman, I said (competition) is in the five-year plan. They can’t believe that not only did we start, but we went to nationals and won.”
She said some coaches voiced their surprise that the “newbies” were doing their full routine at the national level instead something on a smaller scale.
“One coach said nationals was going to eat us alive,” Smith recalled. “We kind of always responded we believe in ‘go big or go home,’ and we’re going home with a 4-foot trophy that we’re worried how to get on the plane.”
Smith said every year she has her team develop a theme.
This year’s was “be all in or get all out.”
“It set the tone for this team that they were serious and sick of excuses,” Smith said.
The cheerleaders had no regular place to practice during the winter season because facilities are in use by other high school teams, so they practiced where they could — at other schools and at churches.
The weekend-long competition again tested that resolve.
Preliminaries were on Friday.
“It was rough,” Smith said.
The girls were supposed to perform at 9:40 p.m., but that competition ran late so they performed at 10:30 p.m.
“They were tired and hadn’t eaten much,” Smith said. “But when they hit that mat, I’ve never seen them like that. Ever. They came out ready to win and we found out Friday night we placed first going into finals.”
The schedules are set so teams that perform at night, perform early during the next day.
They didn’t get to bed until about 1:30 a.m., Smith said, and they were up by 5:30 a.m. to go warm up.
“They were a lot more nervous for finals than for prelims,” Smith said. “But they did everything I asked them to do. It was us and Mountain Side, another Oregon team. We were able to bring first and second back to Oregon.”
The Oregon teams were very supportive of each other, Smith said.
And their Instagram account tells the same story. Teams from Yamhill, Philomath and Sweet Home cheered them on and congratulated them when they won.
They watched each other’s performances as time allowed and made T-shirts that had all the Oregon teams on the back.
Smith said it’s hard to put into words what winning this championship means to her.
“It validates the long hours, the hard work, the pain, the money,” Smith said. “Every single thing that they have done and that we have built over the last eight years since we brought the program back to Central High School.”
Smith said she saw how “talented, hardworking and special” these girls were.
“I said if you put in the work, I’ll put in the time and we’ll see where we go.”
Smith said a lot of the CHS staff reached out to her and the girls, texting support and congratulations.
She said the congratulations and support from the community has been overwhelming and “really appreciated.”
“A big thank you to the community for helping (the cheerleaders) get down (to Anaheim),” Smith said. “It wouldn’t have been possible without them.”