(Updated Oct. 9, 2015) Rocklin High, Antelope change the face of stunt cheering

Schools work to get hyper-athletic competition recognized as a sport.
By: Jorden P. Hales - Of The Press Tribune
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UPDATE: Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill (AB) 949 on Wednesday, Oct. 7 that will classify cheerleading as a competitive CIF sport beginning in 2017-18. Official rules and regulations will be established over the next two years.


If one were to look up “cheerleading,” they would likely find an all-encompassing definition eluding to a promotion of spirit or supplemental activity; relating to – but not in and of itself – sport. 


Hundreds of athletes and coaches – as well as members of state legislature – are working to make these ubiquitous and misguided annotations inaccurate.


Assembly approved on June 1, a bill by California State Assemblywoman and former Stanford University cheerleader Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) that would make some cheerleading activities state-recognized high school sports. It will next be considered by the State Senate.


The bill, however, is not drawing universal support from athletes or coaches, as its current language may prove extremely restrictive to programs.


“I don’t approve,” said Kiana Warrens, senior cheerleader at Roseville Joint Union High School District’s Antelope High. “It’s cool that no one can argue that cheer is not a sport anymore, but now we have to follow a lot of rules. (Competitive) cheer goes all year long, but now we'll be pushed into a season, cutting down practice time along with competitions.”


Warrens, like many of her contemporaries, participates in several different types of cheer and believes, stunt – a relatively new variety – is more conducive to the bill’s intended end goal.


Led by Antelope and nearby Rocklin High School, the sport’s first-ever California State Champion, the Gold Country has been a stand-out region as stunt cheer develops.


“With competitive cheerleading (comp), it’s all about what you can create and do that’s different from someone else,” said Debi DeVinna, head of Rocklin High Cheer. “Stunt focuses on the fundamentals. And While it takes away some of the creativity, it broadens the opportunities.” 


Recognizing the difference is critical. 


Dubbed California High Schools Expanding Equality Respect Safety Act (CHEERS), the aforementioned bill does not currently include stunt, which was created by coaches and former athletes in part to help address what they believe to be a legislative shortcoming.


Gonzalez, however, does not believe stunt to be an appropriate or earnest alternative.


“A vast majority of the schools statewide don’t have stunt and quite frankly, I think it’s more dangerous than traditional competitive cheerleading,” said Gonzalez. “That is a new thing being put out there by a corporation.” 


The corporation she refers to is Varsity Spirit, the company from which most cheer and dance programs in America purchase their apparel. More than 400,000 cheerleaders and dance team members compete in events associated with Varsity annually.


In an interview with the Press Tribune, Gonzalez said Varsity provides financial incentive to some coaches to promote stunt, has funded title 9 lawsuits against cheerleading and that the company’s business model “relies” on “them remaining in control of all competitive cheerleading.”


“We’re just trying to correct what should have been corrected decades ago…that competitive cheerleading shouldn’t just be run by a uniform company on the outside, that we can have it at schools and traditional competitive cheerleading can be a sport,” Gonzalez said. 


The Press Tribune was unable to speak with Varsity before deadline.


“I do believe it increases the chance of (programs) being cut,” Warrens said of the bill, referencing the potential consequences of financial responsibility being placed on schools.


Regina Fraticelli, head cheer coach at Antelope, believes that in some cases programs may choose to operate through cheer gyms, such as All Stars or Power, which both have facilities locally.


There is precedent for such, as faculties like Rocklin’s Hardwood Place allow for high school basketball coaches and players to organize programs in the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), technically separate from the their respective schools.


Unlike routines performed on sidelines at sporting events (known to athletes as “crowd”), stunt is conducive to a traditional season and requires little more than a hardwood floor.


As explained by the Collegiate Stunt Association, the sport emphasizes athletic components of cheer including, but not limited to pyramids, group jumps and tumbling.


Teams simultaneously complete identical routines as judges score according to precision and proper execution. 

As with most traditional team sports, games are broken into quarters and overtimes are played when necessary.


Since 2014, groups of Northern California cheer coaches have collaborated to organize stunt competitions. In two years, the number of participating programs has more than doubled.


“I think it will grow fast because it’s the least expensive…all you need is jerseys and facilities,” said Fraticelli. “I was the first to advocate it last year, for Northern California…I contacted Rocklin and Del Campo and we had a couple of games. This year, because the interest spiked so much (we) asked for volunteers in northern and Southern California for people to be leads in their areas…I was the lead, with Rocklin and we ended up helping the whole region all the way to the Bay Area…I imagine (participation) will double next year.”


Ranked first and second in the state respectively, Rocklin and Antelope have taken the lead in adhering to projected regulations. Coaches complete the same vetting process as those of sanctioned sports, and athletes must complete physicals and meet state standardized academic requirements, per district rules.


“Both our cheerleaders and our dance program are treated as part of our athletics programs,” said Dave Muscarella, interim athletic director at Rocklin High School. “They have to qualify just like everybody else involved in our sports.” 


Though early in its development, the sport provides some opportunities for athletes to participate at the college level. Stunt completed an application for emerging sport status with the NCAA in 2013 and met all of the organizations requirements within a year.


Sacramento State University, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Menlo College and the University of Nevada Las Vegas are among the colleges on the west coast with active stunt programs. Menlo, a private institution in the Bay Area, is the only program currently offering scholarships through its stunt program.


UC Davis, Brigham Young University and Boise State University have indicated interest in developing their own programs. 


According to Lori Harris, former Sac State cheerleader, current advisor to the program and regional ambassador for Varsity the earliest stunt may be recognized by the NCAA would be in 2018.


“Scholarships would be available in the future for any college program that was instituting stunt,” Harris said. “(But) only prior to it being (an NCAA) sport if the school had the funds to offer them.”


Harris stays in touch with high school coaches in the region and believes the number of programs will triple within a year.


Warrens, who is exploring the possibility of joining the University of Miami’s cheer program, told The Press Tribune she would consider staying local if Sac State’s stunt team had a roster spot available for her.   


The entire cheer community continues to advocate for its due consideration from peers, lawmakers and fellow athletes. On May 11, the Assembly passed an additional bill by Assemblywoman Gonzalez to better protect professional cheerleaders from workplace abuses by treating them as employees under California law.


“Playing a sport that’s trying to establish itself is a little bit harder, because you kind of have to prove to everyone that it is a sport,” said Lexi Thornburgh, junior athlete at Antelope High School. “It’s actually frustrating. They don’t know how much work goes into choreographing a routine and then practicing it every day.”


As stunt continues to develop, its early participants are also developing a kinship and respect for one another. The limited number of programs has made for familiarity between athletes hoping their historic part in the sport’s establishment gives way to lasting tradition.


“We literally see the same four teams throughout the season,” Thournburgh said. “We are all going through the same thing, so we kind of have a mutual understanding for each other.”


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