Tim Whyte | 2nd Place Isn’t the 1st Loser, & Other Cheer Lessons

By Tim Whyte

Signal Editor 

My daughter has a little bit of Ricky Bobby in her: She thinks second place is the first loser. 

Yes. Both of our kids — the 23-year-old hockey player and the 17-year-old cheerleader — got the “compete” gene. 

So this year, as Brooke and her varsity comp cheer teammates from Saugus High School went through a series of competitions leading up to a pair of season-ending national contests, she wasn’t much interested in second place. She had a national championship on her mind. A lofty goal. 

And when Saugus brought home the runner-up trophy from the first-ever CIF Southern California cheer championships, I had to do some lawyering to convince her just how significant that second-place finish was:

There were more than 80 schools competing in the very first CIF championships, spread across 11 divisions based on the degree of difficulty and complexity of their routines. 

The Saugus varsity advanced cheerleading team performs at the USA Nationals in Anaheim. Photo courtesy of Kelly Pierson

Saugus competed in the top division, which amounts to a declaration of readiness to take on the best, and to strive to be the best, tackling the most difficult skills. 

The Centurions finished second to Mater Dei, a team they had faced before during the comp cheer season. It bears noting, whenever Saugus and Mater Dei faced each other they finished 1-2, swapping first and second from one competition to the next. Those two teams were the class of the Southern California field all season long. 

I think it sunk in for Brooke that the CIF runner-up trophy was actually significant when the team started getting messages of congratulations — including a signed note for each girl from county Supervisor Kathryn Barger. 

It was a big deal — thanks to the many hours of hard work, practice after practice, and thanks to excellent coaching. Through it all the kids gained all of the benefits of experiencing a team sport, the ups and downs of competition, and the satisfaction of working hard toward something and delivering your best. 

I hope the Saugus High School administration recognizes the value of the comp cheer program and nurtures it as cheer continues its growth as an official CIF sport in the years ahead. And if you don’t think comp cheer is a sport, look up the videos and see the athleticism and precision of these teams as they tumble, stunt and fly. It’s something else. 

Fast forward to the end of the season: 

Competitive cheerleading is kind of like car racing. There are a couple of different sanctioning bodies in the U.S. with their own rules and championships. Think NASCAR and IndyCar. 

So, in early February, the Saugus squad ventured to Florida for the United Cheerleading Association national championship at Walt Disney World. They did well, making it to the semifinals, but a couple of bobbles and wobbles on their stunts kept the Centurions out of the finals. 

It’s probably just as well, because if they had made the finals, they would have had to perform their routine to be recorded on video between 11 p.m. and midnight on the Saturday night of the competition. There’s a stupid CIF rule — Yes I said it. It’s stupid. — that prohibits CIF teams from competing on Sundays. No waivers or exceptions. 

Even if you’re in Florida. Competing for a national championship. 

The finals were going to be on a Sunday. If Saugus had made it, they would have been prohibited from performing on Sunday with the other finalists. 

So, they would’ve needed to perform at about 11 p.m., for the third time in one day, without proper rest and warmup, and their performance would have been judged on a video screen rather than in person. Damn near dangerous because of a stupid rule, not to mention a competitive disadvantage. 

Anyway. 

Lessons learned and character built, the Saugus squad turned their eyes toward the United Spirit Association national championships, held two weeks later at the Anaheim Convention Center across the street from Disneyland. 

Disney. They’ve figured out there’s money in the whole cheerleading thing.

Thousands of cheerleaders, coaches, friends and parents converged upon the Anaheim Convention Center arena for the USA Nationals, where Saugus was once again taking on the best, competing in the advanced category for “large” squads with up to 20 cheerleaders each. (Mater Dei was in the “medium advanced” category, for squads up to 16.)

The Saugus girls nailed their first routine on Friday, easily making the cut for the finals on Saturday. And then, on Saturday, they nailed that routine, too. As a cheer dad, I of course paid special attention to watch Brooke, and made note that she absolutely stuck every one of her tumbling runs in the routine. 

The kid’s got skills. Her practice and dedication paid off in the form of a very confident, accomplished performance. The whole team delivered the same.

But it was in the judges’ hands now. 

Cheer is a judged sport, like figure skating, gymnastics and some of the “X Games” sports. So, we waited. There was a three-hour gap between the girls’ performance and the awards program where they announce the results. Three hours of waiting and wondering. 

When it came time for the awards in our category, they brought out the top four large varsity advanced teams and lined them up on the stage. They announced fourth place, and presented them with their trophy. Then third. 

And when they announced second place, and Saugus’ name hadn’t been called yet, it sunk in:

They were national champs. 

That moment when they found out: The Saugus High School varsity comp squad processes the fact that they have just won the USA Spirit Nationals championship. Photo courtesy of Kelly Pierson.

One of the parents was at stage level and caught a series of photos, showing the moment when the realization hit the girls that they had won. That moment, frozen in time, was the most exciting moment of our girl Brooke’s life, so far. 

Someday I hope she finds out how much more exciting it is, even, when you get to see your kid accomplish something they care so much about. I knew how much Brooke wanted this, and how hard she’s worked, dating back to when she was a 6-year-old taking gymnastics classes. Hour upon hour of flipping and tumbling and flying through the air, fine tuning the skills to the point where they were almost automatic, then in high school learning the teamwork of cheer stunting and choreography. Stuff like this doesn’t just “happen.”

When we were finally able to catch up with the girls during their victory celebration in the concourse of the arena, something I didn’t expect happened to me:

When I saw Brooke and got to her through the thick crowd, I couldn’t talk. 

I gave her a big hug without saying a word, not giving a damn if it made her uncomfortable because I was so proud and so happy for her — and because if I’d tried to speak I would have been a bumbling, blubbering mess. Not good for my macho image. 

Thousands of pictures were taken. The girls and their coaches with the trophy and the banner in front of the USA backdrop. The girls with the trophy and the banner in front of the fountain outside the Anaheim Hilton. They toted that trophy and banner all over the place, grinning at every stop. Individual poses. Group shots. Seniors. 

Stanley Cup celebrations have paled in comparison. 

For Brooke and her fellow seniors who have cheered together for four years, it was an Elway moment. They won the final competition of their high school years, and got to “go out on top.”

I’ve always emphasized to my kids that sports aren’t just about winning. They’re about doing your best, forming bonds with teammates, learning life lessons, building character and, most of all, having fun. 

But damn. Winning is awful nice, too. 

Especially when it’s your kid doing the winning.

Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal. His column appears Sundays. On Twitter: @TimWhyte.  

The Saugus varsity cheer squad ends its routine with a pyramid stunt at the USA Nationals Feb. 23, 2019. Photo courtesy of Kelly Pierson.
The Saugus varsity cheer squad and their coaches celebrate their win at the USA Nationals championships in Anaheim Feb. 23, 2019. Photo courtesy of Kelly Pierson.

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