The Kenai Central cheerleading team. Top row, left to right: assistant coach Keelin McGraw, Bella Croom, MacKenzie Fann, Kimber Moore, Sylvia McGraw, Taya Swick, coach Cassi Holmes. Bottom row, left to right: Cara Graves, Ellee Pancoast, Kayani Whicker, Sarah Baisden, Ella Romero, Makenzie Harden. (Photo provided)

The Kenai Central cheerleading team. Top row, left to right: assistant coach Keelin McGraw, Bella Croom, MacKenzie Fann, Kimber Moore, Sylvia McGraw, Taya Swick, coach Cassi Holmes. Bottom row, left to right: Cara Graves, Ellee Pancoast, Kayani Whicker, Sarah Baisden, Ella Romero, Makenzie Harden. (Photo provided)

Kenai Central cheerleaders win 4th straight state title

The Kenai Central cheerleading team won its fourth straight Division II state cheerleading competition March 29 at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage.

Kenai also has won state titles in five of the past six state competitions.

The run started in 2018, when former coach Brianna Force won the small-squad title in her first year.

In 2019, the classification changed to Division I and Division II. Kenai was second in Division II that season behind Seward.

After no state competition in 2020 due to the pandemic, Force led Kenai to a virtual Division II title in 2021, then live titles in 2022 and 2023.

In 2022 and 2023, Kenai had the top score for both Division I and II. The Kardinals repeated that this season under first-year head coach Cassi Holmes.

Holmes, a 2017 graduate of Kenai Central, was not even planning to coach the basketball cheerleading season because of school and travel.

Last year under Force, Holmes served as an assistant. She then served as an assistant for this football season.

When Kenai’s head coach resigned during the basketball season, Holmes took over the team, holding her first practice Jan. 31.

Even though Holmes was busy, she couldn’t turn down the team.

“I got to know that team pretty well,” she said. “And it tugged on my heartstrings for them not to be able to finish the season.

“I know a few of those girls on kind of a personal level and they said, ‘We don’t have a coach.’”

Holmes also knew the Kards were chasing a fourth straight title and did not want to see it end that way.

“I’m very passionate about cheer,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of misconceptions about the sport in general. It’s my greatest passion — cheerleading.”

When Holmes began practice, the clock was ticking because she said the Kards had missed about three weeks of practice. Her first order of business was to being installing some elite level stunts.

“I actually wrote myself out a weekly plan, where we were going to need to be at day by day,” Holmes said. “Every day, I wrote what my goal was for the end of that practice day.”

Holmes shared the goal with parents and let everybody know how tight the schedule was.

Things like illness, traveling to away basketball games, traveling to the Peninsula Conference tournament in Homer and putting on a fundraiser all cut in to precious practice time.

Holmes had a clear message to the team.

“You guys really missed out on a lot of time,” she said. “So if we’re going to pull this off, we all need to be in it.

“I need 100% commitment, I need all of your dedication and we need to work hard in practice. We can’t miss a beat. And they did that. They really delivered.”

While Holmes said it is easy to point to her for saving the season, she said the foundation already in place and the work ethic of the girls also was essential for the quick turnaround to work.

The Kardinals did not win the Peninsula Conference cheer competition, losing to Seward.

Holmes said the plan all along was to update a routine after the conference tournament.

“That week after regions was spring break, so it really was go-time in practice during spring break,” Holmes said. “That was a pretty intense week for us.”

Holmes said that after she took over, the team was practicing for two hours a day, five to six days a week.

Heading to state, Holmes wondered if putting everything together so quickly would hold up. In an odd way, though, the weird season comforted her.

“I had seen them overcome so many obstacles in their way,” Holmes said. “So I had full faith they could put it together.”

The state competition has two main categories: game day made up of sideline chant, timeout cheer and situational sideline cheerleading, and a 2.5-minute cheer and music halftime routine that includes dancing, stunts and jumps.

Holmes said what set the Kardinals apart were their stunts and their motion technique.

The coach said motion technique is important because it plays into every element of the competition, and gave credit to Force for instilling the importance of motion technique.

“It’s something you instill in them from the beginning of their career — just super sharp, super clean, super quick motions and motion technique,” Holmes said. “In my opinion, motion technique is probably the No. 1 thing that’s going to win a routine in general.”

Holmes said there were five returners and six new basketball cheerleaders on the squad.

The squad also was quite young, made up of seniors Bella Croom and Ella Romero, juniors MacKenzie Fann, Sarah Baisden and Ellee Pancoast, sophomores Sylvia McGraw, Cara Graves, Kayani Whicker, Makenzie Harden and Taya Swick, and freshman Kimber Moore.

The team’s youth and inexperience made for an emotional victory.

“They know they have a reputation to uphold, which is a lot of weight, especially for a very inexperienced squad, just knowing that people are expecting something of them,” Holmes said. “So to achieve those expectations was a massive weight off their shoulders.”

Romero served as the team’s captain, while Baisden was co-captain and also made the all-tournament team. Holmes also said the hard work and dedication of assistant coach Keelin McGraw was vital to the championship.

As for Holmes, she’s not sure she will be able to return as coach next season. She did say she will get the team through open gyms and a camp this summer.

Complete results from state were not available as of Thursday night, but Seward was announced at the competition as finishing fourth and winning the Division II academic award. Homer also competed from Division II but was not announced in the top five.

At Division I, Soldotna coach Jayda Williams said her squad did not finish in the top two, but did win the Division I academic award.

Williams said numbers in her program are way up since she took over in the football season of 2022 and had just a few cheerleaders.

This basketball season, the team was up to 15.

“That’s kind of the goal for the next couple of years,” Williams said. “Just keep building those numbers and building a stronger, more competitive team.”

Williams said the Stars did not get deductions in any of their routines, which is important.

“I feel like they did really well, but there was plenty of room for improvement,” she said. “But that’s coming from a pretty critical coach.”

The coach said the team practiced three to four days a week, but she’s thinking of ramping that up to four or five days a week for football season.

Sophomore Savannah Hawkins and senior Sonia Montague made the all-tournament team for the Stars.

Also competing were freshmen Zoey McCoy and Celene Gladden, sophomores Olivia Hays, Alicia Galles, Lacy Nye, Lily Hannevold, Lynzie Denbow and Bella Stauss, juniors Adele Tacey, Taylor Ruffner, Hailey Stonecipher and Mazzy Bundy, and senior Clara Jost.

The Soldotna cheerleading team. Left to right: Adele Tacey, Olivia Hays, Clara Jost, Mazzy Bundy, Savannah Hawkins, Taylor Ruffner, Zoey McCoy, Sonia Montague, Bella Stauss, Alicia Galles, Lacy Nye, Hailey Stonecipher, Lily Hannevold, Lynzie Denbow and Celene Gladden. (Photo provided)

The Soldotna cheerleading team. Left to right: Adele Tacey, Olivia Hays, Clara Jost, Mazzy Bundy, Savannah Hawkins, Taylor Ruffner, Zoey McCoy, Sonia Montague, Bella Stauss, Alicia Galles, Lacy Nye, Hailey Stonecipher, Lily Hannevold, Lynzie Denbow and Celene Gladden. (Photo provided)

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