- Penn-Delco School District
Sun Valley: Cheer for Cheer-- the team is going to nationals
You may have see them cheering at football and basketball games, supporting community days, and marching in holiday parades. The Sun Valley Cheerleading Team may turn up at Dr. Seuss night, or even at an elementary reading celebration. That is what head coach Katherine deRitis expects from her squad. A former cheerleader herself, deRitis has been coaching the Sun Valley team for five years and has since, with the help of assistant coach Michele Lehman, doubled its size. This month they learned that they would not only be cheering for the boys basketball team, but competing on a national stage. They are now on a mission to raise at least $12,000 to fund their journey.
Seventeen young women form the competition arm of the forty-two member cheerleading team, and this talented group qualified in regionals this month to win a birth at The National High School Cheerleading Championship (NHSCC) at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. Their success is the culmination of a long-term plan that has seen these athletes reach higher than ever before. It’s been a long journey.
deRitis, an Algebra teacher at Sun Valley, was herself a cheerleader in high school. Having passed up cheer at Temple University to pursue a double-major, she reconnected as a coach at the start of a teaching career. She initially led a team at Penncrest, and later at a high school in Florida. When she arrived at Sun Valley, she knew she had an opportunity to build something new. “I came into the coaching position five years ago and Michele came in two years ago. The noticeable difference in growth is great,” she said. There were just over 20 young women cheering when she arrived. “Our biggest goal now is to build a big program here,” she explained. “We want to get those girls that do competition from a young age outside of school wanting to be on our team.”
The coaches began creating an atmosphere of commitment and excellence beyond cheering the teams. “This is the first year we did conditioning in the summer,” explained deRitis. "First there were clinics in March and April where we worked on conditioning: work outs, jumps, stunts, to prepare them for the season.” But it was the twice-a-week summer workouts and the Universal Cheerleaders Association Camp this past summer that also prepared them. “It was intense,” said Lehman, a former cheerleader and current special education teacher at Sun Valley. “It was three days of 8 am until 8 pm preparation. They are true athletes.”
It was a sacrifice that team member Alyssa Barlow embraced. “You never know your limits unless you push yourself to them,” she said.
Once school began, these young athletes combined their cheering for the football program with preparation for competition, which began in November. “We’ve gone to four competitions up to this point,” explains Lehman. “Our first was in mid-November, right after the Turkey Bowl.” And with increasingly better results. “Although we didn’t make states at the district competition, we ranked 29th, our closest ever,” said Lehman. “In a competition the next day, our second routine gave us first place. You don’t have to win districts to compete in regions.”
It was the regional competition and two high scoring routines that sent them to the nationals in Orlando. “For the first routine we got fifth out of ten,” explained Lehman, “and second out of seven (a NJ team placed first) for the other routine. We thought the game day routine was strong to make nationals, but we qualified with both!”
The path to excellence
Many schools from Delaware County have made the trek to nationals, but for Sun Valley, this is a first. “I wanted to wait until our athletes were prepared,” explained deRitis. “I had come to the realization that our team was able to do it.” Nationals will put Sun Valley on a larger stage, competing with upwards of 40 teams all over the country at their class. Class is based on the number of males and females and team size. Teams are not ranked on school size. The Sun Valley Team is considered a large varsity team with seventeen members.
“It’s a huge competition,” said Lehman. “It’s three days long and broadcast on ESPN. You may have to do your routine three or four times in a day, depending on how far you make it. You have to make sure your athletes are ready for that level of competition.” The athletes have two routines including a traditional competition routine which is three minutes and thirty seconds that includes music, dance and cheer. A new “game day” routine division will have them focused on cheers they use at games.
Regardless of where the team places on their first trip to Disney, deRitis is confident that this group has grown greatly from their experience with cheer. The young women are very integrated into the fabric of the school community. Their commitments might include a two-hour practice and then cheering a basketball game. They support elementary school events like Dr. Seuss night or reading celebrations, parades, and community days. “There are so many things that benefit them,” deRitis explains. “It is a year-round commitment that not only helps them develop long lasting relationships, but learn to communicate effectively, manage a work schedule and a life schedule, all while keeping up academics and making our school a more positive place to be.”
Funding a dream
Add fundraising to the mix. The competition team have until February 1 to raise enough money to send them to Orlando, Florida. “It will cost around $1,000 per athlete to attend the competition,” explained deRitis. “We plan to be there.” The team had already put a deposit down on travel to ensure accommodations for the team. Now they hope to raise nearly two-thirds of the cost with multiple efforts that include discount cards, lotto tickets, a beef and beer, and a friends and family night featuring cheer routines from the Aston AA cheer team and Northley cheer too.
“We’ll have the Friends and Family night on January 4thand it will feature our team and the local teams supporting us at the Aston Community Center,” said diRitis. The beef and beer will be at Barnaby’s in Aston on January 12. Additonal fundraisers at Aston Abbey and at Sun Valley are also planned. “Between preparing for nationals and cheering for basketball, we’ll be fundraising,” said Lehman.
It is a commitment that senior Maddy Liss is ready to face. “It has always been a dream of mine to compete in Disney for high school nationals. This team is amazing, and I’m so happy to end my last year with all of them in Florida. We’ll do whatever we have to: candygrams, lottery tickets, sponsor shirts, friends and family night. We will be there.”
Support the cheer team and follow their journey in future editions and on our social media pages as they march toward the nationals February 8 – 10.