Payson High’s cheer squad hoped to defend the first team state championship in program history this past February but the team didn’t get a chance thanks to COVID-19 precautions.

So this year’s student-athletes can’t help but smile because they should finally get back to competition.

But the state championships aren’t until the calendar turns to 2022.

So, they’ll work on becoming the best squad in the state once again as they cheer on the varsity football team and then basketball.

They were able to cheer at home football games in front of a limited number of spectators last year but not for basketball games because of the pandemic-related restrictions.

So, they’re excited as they prepare to perform at halftime of the season-opening football game against Chino Valley on Aug. 27. And, of course, they’ll be showing their school spirit as they cheer throughout the football season.

They open the year with their third head coach in three years.

Tonya Wilson takes over leading the program. Hailey Roberson is the assistant coach.

Wilson is a former owner of Vibe Dance Academy in Payson.

“So, I come from a dance background,” she said. “We also had cheer in that dance studio.”

Wilson wasn’t hired until July but has been working to get the team ready.

“Dove right into getting the girls out there because they’ve been off for so long,” she said. “They didn’t have a basketball season, so they were all really wanting to get out here and get back going.”

She held a three-day overnight camp in Wilson Dome.

“We worked on all of their skills and getting ready to get back out for Friday Night Lights,” the coach said. “We had parents volunteer to bring us food in. We had 18 girls there. We got in some team bonding. We brought in some past cheerleaders. Hailey Roberson was one of them. She’s now my assistant. They even learned a fallback pyramid they did together as a group and it turned out amazing.”

The roster of 18 includes six seniors — Jackie Benitez, Carter Carpineta, Caroline Dedmon, Madison Harris-Henry, Mickenzii Stoll and Maya Wilson; seven juniors — Rhiannon Boal, Jaelynn Bunting, Hope Fialkosky, Aubry Garr, Alex Gordon, Samantha Lehman and Tyler Toone; three sophomores — Kiara Reed, Abbie Sharp and Katie Shukat; and two freshmen — Sabrina Burlando and Kate Hughes.

Maya is Tonya Wilson’s daughter and one of the co-captains with Harris-Henry.

Harris-Henry said she’s glad this school year and fall sports are starting on time and expects to enjoy full seasons once again after last fall’s delays, shorter seasons and restrictions.

“It was definitely hard coming in later and starting later and having to pick up with everything twice as fast,” Harris-Henry said. “But we still got just as much done as we would in a regular season, just in a shorter amount of time.

“It feels better (starting on time). It definitely feels normal. Last year was very off-course and just very weird. I feel good. I’m excited.”

Another state championship is the goal, and Harris-Henry said they made sure everyone on the team is on the same page as far as the goals for this year.

“That’s how we think from day one,” she said. “The first day we come out here, that’s one of the very first things is we make sure everybody gets an understanding of this is our main goal and this is what we are working toward. Football games are more of a practice for us to work towards that state competition and we’ll definitely be back.”

Harris-Henry, Maya Wilson and Mickenzii Still are all entering their fourth year on the varsity.

“Yeah, last year was tough having to deal with all the restrictions because of COVID and having to work around all of that on top of just starting late,” Maya Wilson said. “We’re used to starting a lot sooner than we did, so it definitely put a damper on things and it made it a little bit harder to be able to accomplish what we wanted to accomplish.”

But she’s confident this squad has the experience, leadership and talent to make Payson proud once again.

“We have a lot of goals set and we’re well-prepared and we’re going to do really good,” Maya Wilson said.

She said three coaches in three years isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, she said it could be considered a positive.

“I think it’s good having multiple coaches because you get different views and aspects from all the coaches and they all like teach us different things or want us to do certain things,” Maya Wilson said. “I think it makes us well-rounded having multiple different people come in.”

She’s fired up to get the crowds going this fall.

“We definitely help the student section, which helps create more noise and cheering, which gets the boys riled up and let’s them know they have support from the cheerleaders and their peers,” Maya said.

Coach Wilson said nothing is too difficult for the girls to handle this year.

“We’re going to do more advanced stunts, we’re going to get more crowd involvement, make sure that the whole stadium is going to be engaged in these cheers and the call-back cheers and what not,” the coach said.

The team will participate in a new competition called Game Day in the Valley in December.

“We’re just introducing lots of new cheers and more advanced stunts,” coach Wilson said. “All of our practices and games are intentional to lead up to these competitions, that first one being in December. So everything we do now we’ll be ready for that competition.”

The new coach says cheerleading needs to be recognized as a sport like football, basketball, volleyball and all the others.

“We are truly just as athletic as all the other sports,” she said. “We work very hard. Just for a three-minute routine, we put in hours upon hours of time just to get that little routine in there.”

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