Three cheers for tough girls

October 11, 2010 

The team from Bluffton High School is beat up.

The injury report includes a broken foot, a broken nose, a concussion and 15 stitches to the face of one student.

Sounds like a list of disabled players on the Bluffton High football team, right?

Think again.

The bumps and bruises belong to the competitive cheerleading squad, a group of 24 girls, some as petite as size-2 models who have the grit of 250-pound linebackers.

"It's not the roughest sport," said Beth Herring, who has coached the team since the school opened in 2004. "But there's a very high injury rate."

Cheerleading has come a long way from pompoms, synchronized clapping and simple commands to the fans in the stands at football games.

Today, there are dangerous stunt sequences, pyramids and tumbling passes to perform.

"Within the last 10 years, the competitive aspect of cheering has really come about," Herring said one day after school as her team ran laps around the gym. "It started at the college level and now it's at the high school and the middle school level."

Bluffton does not have a middle school team, but the high school team has girls as young as seventh-graders. Competitive cheer is recognized as an official school sport in South Carolina and is treated like other sports.

One big differences it that there are no Bobcats home games. The team travels throughout the state beginning in late September and continuing into late November, depending on its outcomes at state qualifying tournaments.

And just one spill in the routine drops the team down in the judges' eyes.

"In football, (if) you're down at halftime, you regroup," Herring said. "This, you get two minutes. That's it. There are no do-overs."

The commitment doesn't end at the pressure-packed competitions. Students selected to the team also cheer at Bobcats football games and other school functions. Cheering at games is followed by Saturday and sometimes Sunday competitions.

Cheerleaders begin practicing in May and continue through the summer at three camps. They also take tumbling classes during the school year. Some team members compete on cheerleading all-star teams.

"I know how hard they work," said assistant athletic director John Hollman, who drives the team bus to summer camps. "They bust their butts all day long. They go back to the hotel, they get showered, and the next day they do it again."

The season, meanwhile, is off to a flying start. The Bobcats finished first out of five teams in their first competition in Spartanburg. They followed with a second-place finish out of roughly 30 teams in Columbia.

All the hard work is worth it, said Olivia Mara, a senior captain who joined the team her freshman year.

"Cheerleading is my life," she said. "It's cardio, it's gymnastics, it's everything in one."

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