Prepping in the back area of the Payson High School Wilson Dome, a young squad of mostly underclassmen, nervously toss their purple and gold pompoms as they shout and dance in unison, waiting for their moment to take the spotlight.
In a demonstration of athleticism and poise, cheerleaders run and flip as they take the court in dizzying tumbling passes that include round offs, back handsprings and back layouts. Fliers are tossed effortlessly by the bases into the air as they flick and twist to new heights, safely landing in a cradle of outstretched hands.
After spending the first half of the season sidelined after losing their coach, the Payson High School cheer squad is definitely back.
Under the guidance of new coach Gina Perkes, a former competitive gymnast and college cheerleader, the squad is pumped to rebuild, restructure and raise school spirit.
“This team has a lot of potential,” Perkes said.
After placing fifth at a regional conference in Scottsdale, the team of nearly two-dozen is headed to Tim’s Toyota Center in Prescott to compete at the AIA Spiritline state championship Feb. 5.
“I would love for Payson fans to come to the competition in Prescott and support the cheerleaders. They are judged, in part, on crowd participation so it would be great if we had some support,” she said.
Perkes takes over after a former coach left unexpectedly. Absent from the sidelines for some of the school year, the squad is working with Perkes to rebuild their endurance and confidence.
The team has a great foundation of stunts, but their work ethic needs tweaking, Perkes said.
“I am focusing on their dedication and making them unified as a team,” she said.
In cheerleading, safely relying on teammates is crucial, especially for high-flying basket tosses. One small error and a flier (someone tossed into the air during a stunt) could find themselves on the ground. This year, the team has two great fliers, Alyssa Ulibarri, also the team’s co-captain, and Bailey Patterson. Hanna Golembewski is the team’s ace gymnast and tumbler and Trini Stackhouse is the team’s other captain.
“There are a lot of risks and that is one of the reasons we have to be unified,” she said.
So far, no one has reported serious injuries, but in the competitive world of cheering, girls need to go beyond simple rah-rah cheers to win.
This summer, two members of the squad, Destiney Henning and Rylie Perkes, are attending dance training to learn new choreography. With these skills, Perkes and the team will create new routines for half-time shows. This is the first time team member ideas will be incorporated into routines.
In the past, the coach hired an outside consultant to drum up new routines.
“We will have the girls cheering to their own stuff,” she said.
On top of learning new routines, Perkes is educating the team on conditioning. For three hours a week, the team now does cardio and strength training. This builds the foundation for cheering, she said.
“We view cheering as a sport and they want people to take them more seriously so they are working hard,” she said.