PBL cheerleaders win Medium Varsity division of Illini Challenge

CHAMPAIGN — In Paxton-Buckley-Loda’s last competition prior to regionals, it made some small-school noise in an event full of big schools.

The Panthers, representing a school with an enrollment of 427, competed in the Medium Varsity division of Sunday’s Illini Challenge Cheerleading Championship.

PBL won the Medium Varsity championship with a score of 81.5. Champaign Central (enrollment 1,216) scored an 80.6 while Danville (enrollment 1,622) tallied a 77.9.

“I’m really excited for the girls,” PBL coach Amber Weber said. “First place in our division is a big thing. All of these teams are larger than us. They have more cheerleaders to choose from at their school. Some of these schools have about 3,000 to 4,000 people compared to us, who have 400 people, so to even be able to compete against these teams and do well — I’m really excited for today. It’s a big step for us.”

The Medium Varsity title allotted PBL to enter the Grand Championship, in which it was pitted against division titlists ranging from Junior High to Large Varsity and Co-Ed.

The Panthers won the Grand Championship last year. They took second place this year with a score of 83.8.

“I think we did really well considering how many changes we’ve had to make throughout the season,” PBL senior cheerleader Cacie Ekstrom said. “I think we did really well. We had so much energy, more than we’ve ever had before, and I feel really confident about going to sectionals in two weeks. We had to incorporate all the alternates, which wasn’t really that hard because they’re really able to do a bunch of different things. We incorporated a lot of different tumbling passes. We had one girl finally throwing her tuck, and it was pretty good.”

Belleville East, a school in the Large Varsity division with an enrollment of 2,154, won the Grand Championship with a score of 87.2.

“I think the (Belleville East) Lancers were really awesome,” PBL senior cheerleader Jordan Nijim said. “They deserved (the Grand Champion title). We did our best. I’m happy with it. I think it’s awesome. I’m really excited. I think everybody did awesome. I hope we do well at sectionals.”

The Panthers performed a couple of routines en route to its second-place finish that included numerous running round-off backhand springs in their tumbling and some elite entries and inversion in their stunting.

They also used a couple of props: four cards which, in combination, spelled Panthers and a PBL flag.

“It’s basically the same routine that we (had last week at Buffalo Grove), but we didn’t perform it as well the last time we competed,” Weber said. “It’s the same routine, though.”

PBL’s next competition will be at sectionals, as it travels to Mahomet. The sectional starts at noon Saturday, Jan. 26.

“This (Illini Challenge) is a really good boost for their confidence,” Weber said. “Along with what we just did tonight, we’re going to have an even stronger performance at sectionals. I think we’re pretty prepared for it.”

No matter what should happen at sectionals, or at the IHSA State Competition, Ekstrom said she has enjoyed her senior year.

“I’m definitely nervous no matter what, but I think we have a good shot (in sectionals),” Ekstrom said. “I’m really happy to be a part of this team. We have so many good people this year, and it’s just really good to be around these girls. It’s so much fun, and I love them.”

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