Photo: Pictured above and left, Glencoe High School cheerleaders and coach Lexy Humphrey smile and pose with their medals and trophy after winning third place at the UCA Nationals finals in the Small Varsity Division II Game Day category. Pictured above and right, the Sardis High School cheerleaders and coaches pose with their white jackets, medal and trophy after winning first place at UCA’s National High School Cheerleading Championship for Small Varsity Division II Game Day routines.
By Katie Bohannon, Staff Writer
After competing in the most prestigious cheerleading championship in the country, Sardis High School and Glencoe High School recently brought national titles home to Etowah County. At the Universal Cheerleaders Association’s National High School Cheerleading Championship in Orlando, Fla., Sardis won first place and Glencoe won third.
Nationally televised to over 100 million homes and 32 countries each year, the UCA National High School Cheerleading Championship is held at Walt Disney World Resort. Sardis and Glencoe competed in the Small Varsity Division II Game Day category, which means that each squad is only allowed 12 girls on the mat, with no more than 1,500 students enrolled at their school.
To qualify for nationals, the squad must attend a summer UCA Camp and receive a bid with a score of 70 percent or higher. The girls endured preliminaries and semifinals before qualifying for finals, where after the first round of competition only half of the teams advanced. Glencoe and Sardis were two of eight teams that advanced straight to finals and two of three teams that were awarded medals for their accomplishments.
Sardis teams competed in the Traditional Routine category in 2016, 2017 and 2018 before returning to the Game Day competition this year. 2020 marks the Sardis girls’ first year to advance to UCA Nationals finals.
Sardis High graduate and current Sardis cheer coach Kendall Tankersley recognized where the girls’ success originated. With her own mother training Tankersley as her cheer coach, Tankersley understands the generational effect of cheerleading and the importance of continuance in the sport. For her squad, Tankersley witnessed how despite defeats and falling short of advancement in previous years, her girls were willing to return season after season to work harder, resulting in success on the largest stage in the country.
To prepare for nationals, the Sardis girls attended a UCA camp during the summer and began learning portions of their routine early. They practiced the entire year, perfected each aspect of their routine and performed in front of large audiences to boost their confidence in front of crowds. The Sardis squad invited UCA staff to critique its routine and sought out constructive criticism, learning from mistakes and striving to become better.
“Each time we performed at a competition, we would throw out the scores and only look at the comments from the judges,” said Tankersley. “One of the reasons we feel we did so well in finals at nationals is because we fixed every single thing the judges commented on during the first round of competition. They definitely noticed, because the comments mentioned the improvement!”
With cheerleading, Tankersley explained, there are no second chances and no substitutions. The girls have one opportunity to execute their routines perfectly.
“Being a coach is much different from being the athlete,” Tankersley said. “I pour my heart into these girls and then have to set them free to perform. Watching them from the wings is nerve-wracking, as I have to let them go out there knowing I’ve done all I could to help, and pray the hard work pays off.”
The Sardis girls’ unbreakable bond unified them. From practices during school, on the weekends or in between cheering at games, senior Katie Suddath recognized the resilient determination she shared with her teammates. Working together is Sardis’ secret to flourishing as a team, but each girl’s personal experiences, skills and strengths meshing into a complete unit made the squad successful.
“Back in June when we attended UCA Bama Masters Summer Camp, the UCA staff had us write down a goal for the season,” said Sardis’ Abby Burns. “I wrote ‘head up with a big smile.’ I knew I had control over this goal of mine, and I would try my best to achieve it throughout our season. Little did I know that I’d be carrying my goal into finals at UCA Nationals. Through all of the nerves, I kept my head up with a big smile. [My goal] gave me the confidence I needed for those three minutes on the mat.”
When the first-place winners were announced, the Sardis girls were elated and overjoyed. They embraced one another and relived the challenges they overcame and they obstacles they endured to earn the national title. From shock to excitement to pure happiness, the girls and their coaches felt as if they were living in a dream.
For Sardis coach and Carlisle Elementary School teacher Amber Young, her girls winning first-place represents the culmination of an opportunity she never received as a competition cheerleader at Boaz High School. To see the girls she believed in finally believe in themselves is a gift for Young and winning a national title with the girls she encouraged brought her cheerleading career full circle.
“I just cried,” said Young. “I never got a jacket in high school, but [my squad] was super close. They got their first jackets the year after I graduated, and now I was able to win a jacket on the other side as a coach.”
Burns will never forget that dream they all shared becoming a reality, and the feeling of confidence that encompassed the squad when they realized their worth and discovered the greatness they were capable of achieving. That feeling that Burns experienced is one all Sardis girls shared and one senior Hailey Hill will remember forever.
“I was overwhelmed with emotions,” said Sardis senior Jeslyn Taylor. “I started jumping and crying, I even tackled my friend Katie without even thinking about it. That moment made every hard practice and every difficult moment worth it.”
The Sardis girls did not win the first-place title for themselves alone, but return to families who supported them and a home that embraces their triumph. Through the experience, the girls witnessed people affected by their success and were honored to bring delight to so many households.
“Coming home after winning a national title has made me, and I’m sure the team, feel like we have made our community proud,” said Sardis senior Josie Turk. “Being able to see the people we’ve made happy because of this accomplishment is heartwarming.”
For several Glencoe girls, cheerleading is a legacy. Squad members Zoë and Meisi Diggs, Bailee Hallmark and Zoey Benson admired their older sisters who cheered, while Alix Davis and Molly Brown considered cheerleaders in classes ahead of them role models. Glencoe cheer coach, former Piedmont High School and Jacksonville State University cheerleader and Lexy’s Cheer & Tumble owner Lexy Humphrey understands the bond that cheerleading forms in teammates, an aspect of her position as sponsor that she treasures.
“The girls are like family to me,” said Humphrey. “I see them almost every day and just getting to know them and their personalities is what I enjoy most. We have laughed together and even cried together, but through it all, the girls hold such a special place in my heart. Watching them grow into role models for younger girls makes me so proud.”
Today, the Glencoe girls have become the role models they respected in the past, fostering that same sense of drive and determination in younger girls who look up to them. Emma Strickland, Riley Carmack, Mia Jenne and Scotlyn Moore recognize that shared experiences, encouragement and endless humor unite the Glencoe girls in a friendship where girls support each other and feel free to be themselves. In such a comfortable and loving environment, the girls grew together and flourished.
“I appreciate how well we work together and how each one of us works very hard,” said Zoë Diggs. “The camaraderie we created was very special.”
The Glencoe girls deem their teammates more than friends—like Humphrey, they consider their team a family. Whether the girls cheered together for several years or one, such a close-knit sisterhood reveals a truth Ashlyn Clowdus learned during her time cheering.
“You always do better when you work together,” Clowdus said.
This year was Glencoe’s first year competing at nationals and Humphrey’s first year attending nationals as a coach. The girls who started in eighth place persevered through each round and with determination, steadily climbed their way to third place in the nation. For the team whose goal was simply to qualify, Glencoe’s squad proved that practice, patience and dedication transforms dreams into a reality more magical than they ever imagined.
“I remember looking around and being so proud of my girls for making it this far,” said Humphrey. “Before they went out for awards, I told them no matter what happens, you be proud of yourself and your team. You gave it all you had, and nobody should have any regrets.”
When the Glencoe girls discovered they won third place, they were ecstatic. While the girls wished for a higher title, to return to a community and the families that rallied behind them the entire journey with a national honor will forever remain in their memories as an incredible moment and a fulfilling accomplishment.
“We worked so hard for an entire year,” said Glencoe senior Carly Sims. “[I learned] how to not only perform under immense pressure but how to also perform well under pressure. We gave it everything we had. We left everything on that competition floor.”
Sardis senior Lexi Henderson first felt drawn to cheerleading after witnessing the joy cheerleaders create through encouraging others, while Glencoe’s Jacey Cochran recognized the leadership and positivity cheerleaders nurture in themselves and those around them. But both Sardis and Glencoe cheerleaders confess that they did not win their titles alone. Through the unfaltering commitment from their mentors, the girls’ coaches pushed them to excel beyond their own imaginations and protected their dreams. Humphrey, Tankersley and Young taught their squads leadership, boldness and determination, encouraging the girls who are their legacies, now standing in the same place they once stood years ago.
“Thank you [Humphrey] for all the dreadful long practices, the endless corrections, and the patience,” said Cochran. “Looking back, those are the aspects that got us to where we are now.”
“I am so thankful that [our coaches] believed in us the way they did,” said Henderson. “[Tankersley and Young] had confidence in us even when we didn’t. We could not have won nationals without them. They pushed us and told us over and over again that we could win. They spoke it into existence and we won! I’m so humbled to be a part of this big win, so thankful for this experience and to be able to win nationals my last year as a cheerleader. I couldn’t ask for a better team, coaches or family. Thank you [Tankersley and Young] for making my senior year the absolute best!”
Whether the girls are supporting their peers at football games or rallying the audience in the stands, projecting happiness and radiating energy on the court or pushing each other to succeed at national competitions, cheerleaders serve as a voice that enlivens fatigued spirits and inspires confidence in all individuals. Through their own fortitude, cheerleaders demonstrate that one reassuring word makes others realize their potential, one cheerful remark strengthens a downtrodden mind and one comforting smile sparks the belief that goals are achieved and dreams are never too distant to attain. Cheerleaders advocate for the power of perseverance in others because they understand that diligent efforts triumph in the end. They understand because they have experienced it themselves: overcoming without giving up, enduring in the face of doubt and remaining faithful until they succeed.
“I hope [the girls] can finally believe us when we tell them just how great they are,” said Tankersley. “I hope they take this experience with them forever, and I hope the things they learned in cheerleading will make them more successful in life.”