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PAXTON — To give sports fans in the Paxton area an idea of the kind of pressure cheerleaders face, Paxton-Buckley-Loda cheer coach Amber Weber offers a perspective to those more familiar with a jump shot than a round-off backhand spring.
“I like to tell people this all time — you have a basketball team that plays in a regional game or a sectional game, and they have two hours. You miss a shot, OK. You move on and you make the next shot,” Weber said. “With cheerleading, you only have two-and-a-half minutes, so it’s more like a three-point contest. You can be the best 3-point shooter in the world, but if you don’t hit every shot, you’re not going to make it.”
The Panthers’ cheer squad hopes to hit all its shots — or at least most of them — as they enter Saturday’s Mahomet Sectional.
“That’s what it really comes down to this weekend,” Weber said. “We’ve got to hit everything. If something doesn’t hit, we just have to make the rest of the routine absolutely perfect, and they’ll make it if they do that.”
If PBL is able to advance past the sectional round, it will qualify for the state meet for the fifth consecutive year.
Weber, who is in her first year as the squad’s head coach, was a senior cheerleader when the Panthers made their first state appearance in 2009. They finished 13th in the state that year.
In 2010, 2011 and 2012, PBL finished 24th, 12th and 25th in the state meet, respectively.
“I do feel the pressure, that’s for sure,” Weber said. “I’m excited. I’m nervous. It’s a lot more nerve-wreaking as a coach than it was as a cheerleader. At least when you’re a cheerleader, you can have some sort of control over it. When you’re a coach, you just kind of say, ‘Go do it.’”
That instruction was forwarded to a team that lost seven seniors from last year’s 25th-place squad.
With all of their flyers gone, the Panthers were forced to rely upon two newcomers to step up as the team flyers.
Junior Paxton Johnson served as an alternate on last year’s squad while Shauny Davis stepped in as a freshman.
“We didn’t really have that experience that’s necessary, but they’ve stepped up to the plate,” Weber said. “We’re coming in as a really young squad.”
Johnson said she and her squad have been doing some good things despite the youth at the flyer position.
“It’s really exciting being in this year,” Johnson said. “We’ve been doing pretty well. So far, I’m really excited about the season. I think we’ve done really well for ourselves. We were scared because a lot of our seniors were very good last year. With them graduating, we were kind of worried about what was going to happen, but I think with Amber Weber as our coach, we’ve done pretty well.”
Despite only being a freshman, Davis said she likes her team’s chances of going to state.
“I think we’ll do pretty well at sectionals,” Davis said. “I think we have a pretty good chance of making it to state. We have a lot of good competition, but I think we have a good shot at making it to state.”
The road to state, however, may be a bumpy one for PBL this time around, and not just because of its youthful squadron.
The Panthers go into the Mahomet Sectional against 18 other small varsity division squads, five of which have qualified for at least one state meet over the past two years.
With only five teams eligible for state qualification, PBL hopes to not be the odd man out.
“The teams that we’re going to be competing against are really tough,” senior cheerleader Cacie Ekstrom said. “This, I would say, is the toughest sectionals that we’ve ever had. There are some strong teams that we’re going up against. It’ll be amazing if we get the top five. I think everybody’s going to be really excited.
“I’m nervous. I feel confident about it, but either way, I’m going to be nervous no matter what. Even if I say I’m not, I am. Even if everybody else says they’re not, there are still nerves there. Anything can happen. I’m just hoping for the best.”
In a season that has seen PBL win three first-place trophies, including one from the Illini Challenge that took place Sunday, Jan. 13, Weber said her squad has given her no reason for a lack of faith despite the difficult sectional.
“There are some pretty tough teams, but I have faith in the girls,” Weber said. “They’ve never really let me down. I’ve never felt let down from them. The girls have done well at all of our competitions. We have three first-place trophies for this year, which is really good. I think they have a stronger team, for the most part. They hit it every time.”
Weber said what the Panthers may have lacked in experience, they more than made up for with stamina, enabling them to be boisterous through their routine.
“(The judges) constantly write on our scoresheets about how loud we are,” Weber said. “You see a lot of squads that lose breath. We never lose our breath. We’re a very strong team. We’ve done a lot of conditioning. We still do conditioning to this day every practice. Most teams only condition at the beginning and then work on technique. We still do both. We work on technique and we work on conditioning so that they keep their strength the entire year.”
Weber also said the stamina has led to an injury-free season for PBL so far.
“We haven’t had any injuries,” Weber said. “In my opinion — and the athletic trainer did say something about this, too — we haven’t had any injuries because of the conditioning that we do all the time. We never stop doing it because — you can see the stuff that they’re doing. They’re jumping. They’re tumbling. They’re stunting. They’re doing so many things in just two-and-a-half minutes, and you have to have the strength in order to do that and not get hurt.”
Ekstrom said the hard work is a result of a more desirous squad than any of which she has taken part in her four years at PBL.
“We’ve never worked this hard,” Ekstrom said. “I think we just want it more than we’ve ever had before. I really don’t know why. I don’t think I’ve wanted it more than I ever had before. I wanted it really bad last year, but since it’s my last year, I really want to make it memorable. I want to be remembered for being part of a good team and a bunch of really good girls.”
In addition to hard work, the Panthers have been showing some skill in the art of tumbling.
To hone the Panthers’ tumbling skills, Weber enlisted the services of Fairbury native Justin Hornickel. Hornickel instructs the girls during their Thursday tumbling practices.
“He’s awesome,” Weber said. “Just like football, you have your head coach, your offensive coach, your defensive coach. It’s the same thing with cheerleading. I felt like I am an expert in everything and I can help them on anything. I can also help them on their tumbling, but I’m not an expert at tumbling. Most of the state-championship cheerleading squads always have tumbling practice at least once a week as a squad. He comes in here and he practices with us for two hours.”
The tumbling skills were well noticed by former head coach Peggy Seibring — who coached PBL to its first two state appearances — as a vast improvement from her time as the head coach.
“The tumbling was one of the biggest changes from the very beginning,” Seibring said. “A lot of the girls didn’t tumble, and it became a big focus. Girls started going to Bloomington or Champaign and take gymnastics. It really makes a difference.”
Although the Panthers have only two seniors — Ekstrom and Jordan Nijim — on their squad, Johnson said the leadership has played a vital role on the team.
“Our two seniors are really great,” Johnson said. “Both of them have really contributed to the team a lot. Both of them are captains this year, and I really think that our team just works together very well this year.”
At the same time, Ekstrom commends the younger cheerleaders for their maturity.
“There’s so much maturity in this squad. Just because we’re seniors doesn’t mean we’re the most mature. Everybody’s pretty much all the same. We have a lot of newer people, but they’re still at the same level that we are.”
Oh, how it’s grown
When the IHSA formed its first-ever competitive cheer season in 2005-06, PBL’s squad — coached by Peggy Seibring and Gayle Lemenager — was not allowed to go to any competitions.
Seibring and Lemenager saw potential in their squad, however, when they watched a meet that year.
“We were like, ‘We can do this,” Seibring said. “Our girls can do this.’ It was really Gayle who probably was the one that had the idea and said, ‘Hey, they’re starting to do this. What do you think?’ And that’s when we went and looked. From that aspect, I think the program has evolved quite a bit in the last six or seven years.”
The progression was not easy. In 2006-07, the squad could only compete at the sectional meet.
“The school didn’t allow us to compete in anything other than the sectional meet. We really weren’t recognized as a school sport until a few years ago,” Seibring said. “We were competing, but competitive cheerleading wasn’t really a sanctioned thing by the board. They were letting us go, but it wasn’t an official thing until a few years ago, and then they let us compete five times in a season plus sectional and state. That’s a full season.”
In the five seasons in which they were allowed to compete with a full season, PBL has qualified for state in each of the last four.
Lemenager resigned prior to the first trip, and Jill Schrodt took over as head coach in the past two seasons.
“It’s changing. It’s progressing,” Seibring said. “Our first year, we didn’t have nearly the tumbling that the girls have now. Our stunting wasn’t at the level that it is now, so it’s progressing. It’s a good squad PBL has right now. For being as young as they are, they have done incredibly well this year. I’m looking to go back to state with them. It’ll be fun. It’ll be exciting with them.”
Seibring said she has also noticed a difference in the competition.
“I don’t know if there’s a difference from when I was coaching,” Seibring said. “Back when it was beginning, everyone was kind of new and everyone wasn’t doing quite what they’re doing now, so everybody’s kind of progressing together.
“At that time, the competition level was the same, but everyone wasn’t doing quite as much as what they’re doing now, so that’s the difference. It was still pretty competitive back then. It’s just been a few short years since they’ve started. Everyone knows what they’re doing now and what the judges are looking for, and they’ve changed their routines to be more complicated at the difficulty level.”
In the long run, Seibring said she has also noticed a change in the cheerleaders’ routines during football and basketball games.
“Nothing against any coach before, but competitive cheerleading wasn’t there, so they were just doing the sidelines and spirit things for the game, so it did change a lot once we started competing. I think it’s all good because everything the girls do for a competition shows up at the games, too, because they use those same skills. It’s been fun. It’s very time-consuming.”