The cheerleaders at Hotchkiss High School made history.
The Bulldogs capped a record-setting season by winning third place at the state spirit competition at the Denver Coliseum last month.
"I don't know if even they realize what they did," coach Liz Heidrick said. "They made history. They are the first Hotchkiss cheerleading squad to my knowledge, ever, to make the final four at a state competition."
Hotchkiss rode the momentum from winning the regional competition at Fruita all the way to Denver, where the Bulldogs finished third in the state behind St. Mary's and Strasburg in the 2A/3A Coed Division.
There were 23 teams competing at state. Highland and Pagosa Springs finished fourth and fifth, respectively, behind the Bulldogs. Hotchkiss has the only spirit team in all of Delta County. Spirit teams are comprised of a cheerleading squad and a dance team.
"Against all obstacles, coming in as a dark horse, coming in with no feeder program to support us, without tumbling or gymnastics classes in the area," Heidrick said. "With a ton of heart and a lot of hope, and with a lot of dedication and hard work. It really was a challenge. I'm extremely proud."
To understand what an impressive achievement this is for the Bulldogs, several stereotypes about cheerleaders and cheerleading need to be set aside. They do a lot more than just stand next to a basketball court or a wrestling mat or a football field and jump up and down and shout.
"It takes tons of practice," said Morgan Staten, a sophomore on the squad. "It takes three hours of practice maybe even six hours of practice a day. And that's year-round. It consumes most of your time. It takes a lot of skill."
People sometimes say cheerleading is not a sport, failing to understand the time commitment, the high level of competition and the talent required to succeed as a cheerleader.
"We compete against other schools. We compete against other cheer teams," said Caitlyne Scriver, a senior captain for the Bulldogs. "We throw up some stunts that aren't very easy to do. We try our hardest. We practice for hours every day. We put in a lot of effort just like any other sport. We do everything another sport would do. I think it's pretty much a pointless argument for everyone to be having."
Scriver and Staten joined 16 other Bulldogs at the state competition: Courtney Cox, Cory West, Kaila Harward, Jade Hart, Peyton Short, Amber Mattler, Kaleigh Little, Emily Keleher, Sierra Baker, Courtney Mattler, Madison Reed, Jenny McDonald and Rebekah Patterson.
The sport is coed and the Bulldogs had three male cheerleaders at state: Joe Nault, Trevor Ballard and Darrin Young.
Boys in cheerleading often have to overcome many of the same stereotypes girls do, sometimes enduring teasing and criticism from peers for participating on a girls' team.
"Our boys, to their credit, have fought through that, just with good senses of humor, and just a good sense of who they are and a good self-esteem," Heidrick said.
One of the boys' cheerleaders, sophomore Darrin Young, also plays football, basketball and track for the Bulldogs. He got into cheerleading at the invitation of a senior friend last year.
"It's making me better because I can get more involved with my school," Young said. "I'm thrilled to be a part of it. If you look at all of those teams that did really good at state back in the 90s, and then we come back and we get third, that's really impressive."
There's a lot more to cheerleading than just cheering. Competition at state features complicated routines that factor in tumbling, gymnastics, kicks, choreography and dancing. Heidrick has a background in dance so she helps the young Bulldogs learn from a pro.
"Whether you're dancing or cheerleading, there's always that dance element part of it so it helps to have that background in classical training in dance, ballet, jazz," Heidrick said. "Then of course you have all these street elements like rap, hip hop, funk, all of those different genres of dance. Even the country. We're looking forward to doing a routine that has a country flair to it. It is fun to incorporate those things."
At the state competition, seven judges awarded scores based on a rule book that is inches thick. The number of tricks, skills and moves that the judges are looking for is astounding.
"They judge us on crowd interaction, leading the crowd, dancing, sharpness, angles, stunts, difficulty of stunts, tumbling, little small details like keeping tight when you're moving," Staten said. "We have to have a wide variety of skills."
Sometimes, like at state, the Bulldogs had to learn a new routine the night before they performed it. At those times the choreographers step up. Choreographers are team captains, essentially, who have many more responsibilities.
The Bulldogs choreographers are Staten, Scriver, Madison Reed, Kaila Harward and Jenny McDonald.
"Choreographers make up routines, we critique, we talk to people that aren't meeting our standards, we help people with their dance moves and anything they're struggling with," Staten said.
The choreographers were really tested in Denver.
"During state there was me and three other girls," Scriver said. "We learned the dance, we perfected it and then any other girls that had problems with it we would teach them the right way. We try to teach the dance in the correct way. The choreographers are pretty much the dancers on the team. We're really good at dancing, we love dancing."
While the Bulldogs had to learn new routines at state and deal with crowds of nearly 10,000 people, practice paid off and the cheerleaders walked onto the mat at the Coliseum with their heads held high.
"We changed so much stuff," Staten said. "The night before, before we went on the mat, our stunts weren't hitting, but when we walked out on the mat at state we hit every single stunt."
Heidrick is in her second stint coaching the Hotchkiss spirit squad. She coached the team for six years in the 1990s then came back three years ago to help renew the program. The spirit squad is entirely self-funded, with no money from the school or district.
But that doesn't mean they're not supported.
"This school, Hotchkiss High School, our administration and the athletic director and the teachers have been extremely supportive," Heidrick said. "They have helped us. They have helped my kids that have struggled academically. They have gone above and beyond the call of duty to help make this program.
"Despite all of the hurdles, they have been there for us," Heidrick said. "The support has been there. We may not be a funded program, but we are a supported program. It's a privilege to have the cheerleading program. That's how I look at it. It isn't a given anymore."
Many of the girls on the team find a home in cheerleading after maybe having a hard time with other aspects of high school life.
"A lot of my kids have not been successful prior to this in other mainstream athletic activities and sports," Heidrick said. "So there is a little bit of extra nurturing and prodding that has gone along with the developing of this program."
Sitting in front of the entire cheerleading squad, interviewing them, is a bit intimidating. Kind of like performing in front of 10 teenaged judges who are critiquing your every move.
They all have various answers to the question, Why did you want to become a cheerleader?
Courtney Cox replied, "I wanted to try something new, and just fell in love with it. I wanted to give myself a challenge."
Freshman Peyton Short, who started cheering in the eighth grade, said, "When I was little I always wanted to do it. I always came to their practices and watched them, and it motivated me to do it even more."
Emily Keleher said, "I wanted to do something to push myself."
Sierra Baker answered, "A lot of my friends were joining and I thought it'd be really fun, so I thought I'd try it."
A couple of them said the same answer: "I wanted to sparkle. I wanted to shine."
And for three days in Denver last December, the Hotchkiss High School cheerleaders did just that. They sparkled. They shined.
They made history.