On Monday, nine Kenai Central High School cheerleaders joined hundreds of others from around the country in a pre-show performance ahead of the bout between Louisiana State University and Purdue University at the Citrus Bowl at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida.
Kenai athletes who took the field Monday included seniors Malena Grieme, Cali Holmes, Maya Montague, Brooklyn Reed, Kaitlyn Taylor and Genesis Trevino, as well as junior Ella Romero and freshmen Makenzie Harden and Sylvia McGraw.
“It was more people than I’d ever seen in one spot,” Montague said of the experience on Wednesday. “I feel like I’ll never be able to experience anything like that again.”
Montague said there were packed stands, fireworks in the air, and planes flying overhead.
“You look up on the big screen, and see yourself,” she said. “My heart was racing.”
“Being on the field was one of the craziest experiences of my life. I’ve never experienced anything cooler,” Grieme said. “It was crazy to have all that energy. It makes you really excited to be doing what you’re doing.”
Grieme said she was intimidated by the number of people that were watching, but that the energy and the pace were so high she didn’t sweat it.
“It gives me chills,” KCHS head cheerleading coach Brianna Force said. She explained that her team was the only representative of Alaska, and that they found themselves in a stadium filled with 60,000 people.
The Kardinals earned their place on the field by winning the Herkie Team Award during their annual summer camp with the National Cheerleading Association. Representatives from the association are present and evaluate every member of the team at the camps.
The Herkie Team Award, Force explained, is given to squads who exemplify the qualities upon which the association was founded — leadership, values and teamwork — and is the highest award given at NCA camps.
This is the second time Force has taken Kenai cheerleaders who have earned the award, she said. In 2019, she took five athletes to Florida, but then the COVID-19 pandemic stymied further opportunities.
Force said she went into this 2022’s summer camp knowing that her team had what it took to earn the award, as long as they could maintain good spirits. That belief was validated.
In addition to the honor awarded to the team, Harden and Holmes were each individually awarded the All-American Cheerleader Award at the camp.
The Kenai athletes left for Florida on Thursday night, spending Friday through Monday in Orlando. Force said they were given the routine to learn in advance, and they spent mornings and afternoons in practices.
The teams had some opportunity to mingle, and Montague said they spent most of their time around athletes from Alabama because the teams were organized alphabetically. She said they compared climates and school settings.
“Every time we told someone we were from Alaska, their eyes popped out of their heads,” Grieme said.
Force said her team had something extra to take from the experience than the other athletes participating from the Lower 48. In Alaska, her team doesn’t have other opportunities to perform in such large or well-attended venues. Hometown football games carry a different vibe than stadiums packed with fans.
The value of the experience wasn’t lost on the players.
Grieme hit the field for the Citrus Bowl only months after breaking her ankle. In December, she was still using crutches.
“That’s the first thing I’ve been able to do,” she said. “It was really cool for me to be able to do it and be there and do everything like normal instead of being held back by an injury.”
Montague, a senior and team captain, said the experience was extremely emotional for her, being able to represent Alaska with her team during her last year of high school.
“It makes you realize that all the hard work you put in and all the extra hours, when you’re feeling unmotivated, makes it all worth it,” she said. “There’s no other group of girls that I’d rather be out there with.”
That’s the takeaway Force said she hoped her team carried, both as student athletes and into the future: that their hard work and good attitudes could pay off.