The girls sat huddled together on the University of Florida gymnasium mat, squeezing each other’s hands in anticipation.
The Hagerty High School cheerleading team could still feel the sting from a 2020 loss to a long-time rival, Bartram Trail High School in St. Johns, Fla., when they thought they’d cinched the state championship.
“We thought we deserved to win but they didn’t call our name and we were shocked. It was honestly our best performance. We were all feeling very confident,” said Emma Johnson, Hagerty High senior and captain of the 2021-2022 team. “We went on to win nationals so it was kind of better but we were all so surprised.”
But this year it was the Hagerty name that was called. They won first place in the varsity, medium, all-girl division of the Florida High School Athletic Association’s state championship competition inJanuary. In the past decade, the Huskies have either placed first or second in the state competition every year and have taken home six championships.
“Success breeds success,” Hagerty High School Athletic Director Jay Getty said. “You create that standard and build on it, year after year.”
The Oviedo City Council recognized the team on Monday night, which Johnson said was an honor after an exceptionally tough season. The team had switched from the large team division to the medium team division, which she said is a more challenging group.
Plus, this change pitted them against a team they were friendly with, Winter Park High School. Johnson said they had lost to Winter Park in the regional competition this year so they were not feeling very confident as the results were being announced at the state competition. They ended up winning by one-hundredth of a point.
“We were kind of robbed the year before so we were glad we were able to win this year, especially for the seniors,” Johnson said.
The last time the team won first in a state competition, Johnson was a freshman, so no one else on the team had experienced a state win. Now, she said, the seniors who graduate this year can rest assured that the students remaining on the team will know what it takes to come out on top.
Hagerty Cheerleading Head Coach Terri King said a lot more goes into learning how to create a successful team than winning one competition. King said the seniors spend time coaching the junior members of the team how to help run the entire program.
Being the sole coach of the varsity team, King said she relies on the team’s seniors to run practices, teach cheers and lead pep rallies and warm ups.
Making the cut
Cheerleading is the only high school sport that lasts three seasons – football, basketball and competition season – so the girls form a very tight bond. During the school year, practices run two to three hours, five days a week. That’s pared down to three days a week during the summer.
King said most girls pick up additional weekly practice hours at gyms outside of the school. She owns Double Down in Oviedo, which has a competitive cheerleading program.
She said the team is highly competitive both externally and internally. Last year, there were 32 students on the cheerleading team but come October, that number is reduced by half. The athletes deemed most fit for competition make the cut.
“It’s extremely competitive within the team,” King said, adding that this year’s 27-student team will be trimmed to 19 during competition season. “It’s a tough job. Everybody works hard to get to that point. I have to be really strategic when I’m choosing who moves on.”
In addition to the regular practice rigor, King and the Hagerty weightlifting coach created a special weightlifting program for the cheerleading team, brimming with exercises that help the athletes lift the other students up for stunts and jump high into the air. The cheerleaders complete this program over the summer.
“You put a lot of effort into cheerleading for basically 2 minutes and 30 seconds,” she said about culminating the team’s hard work into one annual competition slot. “It’s really hard; it’s really stressful.”
King believes that what makes Hagerty’s team so special is that they are one of the few schools with a junior varsity and freshman competition team so their students are well versed in what it takes to compete in cheerleading early on.
“We push them from the beginning and give them the opportunity to be on the competition floor at younger ages,” King said.
Despite the intense competition, King said the students form tight bonds with one another. The team is separated into smaller groups to work on specific skills. She said those groups get really close, forming their own group text chats and organizing regular get togethers and side practices. She said one group would meet up for weekly dinners.
“In gymnastics, the chemistry has to be there,” King said. “You’re throwing people in the air. You have to trust each other. The groups all have something extra they do.”
King said she feels that bond with the athletes as well. The seniors from the team who will graduate next month all started as freshmen when King first began coaching at Hagerty. She said seeing them win states was very special.
“They were with me from the very beginning,” she said.
Getty said the school always looks forward to the following year because they know they’ll experience the same excellence they’ve seen year after year.
“They pass down the work ethic that 100 percent is the only acceptable work level,” he said. “You need to live up to the standard because that’s what the person next to you is doing.”