The Kenai Central cheerleading squad won its third straight Division II March Madness state competition March 21 at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage.
The Kardinals won in 2021 in a virtual format due to the pandemic, then won last year with all the team members facing a live state crowd for the first time.
Senior captain Cali Holmes said half the team returned this season, but that didn’t make winning state any easier.
“Having won so many times before, people expect to see you succeed,” Holmes said. “Plus, there’s pressure on the younger members of the team because we’ve had so much success before. That all made it a little more pressure on me.”
Holmes said when the team gave its performance, she had no idea if that performance was good enough to win, or even if the team had improved in the last year.
“Watching the videos back to back, you can totally tell we improved so much,” said Holmes, who was the only team member to make the all-state team. “Watching it, it’s very clear we are a better team than last year.”
Kenai Central coach Brianna Force, who also led the Kards to the small-squad state cheerleading title in her first year in 2018, said that for the second straight year, her squad scored the best of Division I and II teams.
“They are absolutely amazing,” Force said of her team.
The coach said her squad got a bit of a late start, beginning at the end of December and practicing five days a week.
“At the beginning of the season, we knew the expectations were set high,” said Force, who was assisted by Cassi Holmes and Avery Brandmeyer. “I set pretty high goals for them individually, as well as a team. They all worked really well throughout the season to accomplish those goals.”
The competition has two parts. The game-day portion includes the sideline chant, timeout cheer and situational sideline cheering. The halftime portion is a 2.5-minute cheer and music portion that includes dancing, stunts and jumps.
Force said she felt good about the team going in, but didn’t know how her squad would handle nerves on the big day. She said the Kards came through great, with help from the Kenai Central community.
“One of the things that factored in was our crowd,” Force said. “Both the girls and boys teams qualified for state and were there, plus there was a huge parents section.
“When the team went out to perform, I think the energy pushed them to do even better than they would have.”
The Kardinals also received the Division II Academic Award with a grade-point average of 3.97.
“That goes to show how committed the girls are,” Holmes said. “They are 100 percent committed to doing their best and working super hard after school. That hard work is not just in the gym.”
The Kardinals lose six seniors in Holmes, co-captain Maya Montague, Brooklynn Reed, Ayla Tallent, Genesis Trevino and Malena Grieme. Also winning state were juniors Caitlyn Martin and Ella Romero, sophomore Sarah Baisden and freshmen Sylvia McGraw, Makenzie Harden and Taya Swick.
Because both the Kenai girls and boys played three games at the Division II state tournament, six Kardinals won Basketball Sideline Cheerleader of the Game awards. They were Holmes, Trevino, Reed, Harden, Baisden and Tallent.
The Homer cheerleaders finished eighth in Division II. Coach Winter Marshall-Allen said it’s been a successful season of building the team.
Marshall-Allen said she started the season with two, ended football with eight, started basketball with eight, built up to 15, and traveled to state with 12.
That building process allowed the Mariners cheerleaders to attend state for the first time since 2007.
Marshall-Allen wanted to highlight all the community involvement that went into making the successful season happen.
She said Jill Zank provided a solid foundation for the team the previous two years. Zank instilled a passion in junior captain Ally High, who persistently asked the Homer administration to get a new coach.
Marshall-Allen also said Force was a great source as a mentor.
The Homer coach said the Mariners were able to increase their score from the Peninsula Conference tournament, which is the ultimate measure of improvement.
Senior Sameah McGhee made the all-state team for Homer. Also competing were senior Tuong Thi Cat Tran, junior High, sophomore Mari Brewer-Cote, and freshmen Thea James, Hannah Klima, Taylor Fraley, Lynnzi Stout-Dee, Ellen Barrett and Dorothea Hanenberger.
Also on the team but not competing at state were juniors Faith Latham and Nikole Drake, and sophomore Angelynn Webb.
Thursday at the Mariner Theatre at 6:30 p.m., there will be a cheerleading showcase for a $5 suggested donation.
The Mariners cheerleaders will perform their state routine, while the Little Mariners Cheerleaders, who are from kindergarten through eighth grade, also will perform.
Proceeds will go to help Homer host a National Cheer Association home camp in July.
Head coach Jayda Williams and assistant coach Lacie Kelly took over the Soldotna program this season and led the Stars to an eighth-place finish in Division I.
“It went really well,” Williams said. “We got really good scores. I couldn’t have been more proud.
“We have a pretty young team and we’re first-year coaches. They did awesome.”
The Stars had 10 finish out the season, led by senior captain Rylen Weed. Weed was named to the all-state team. Soldotna also loses senior Elizabeth Garcia, but everybody else is eligible to return.
“We’re hoping to really build the program the next couple of years,” Williams said.
Also competing at state were junior Adele Tacey, sophomores Angelina Beck, Mazzy Bundy and Hailey Stonecipher, and freshmen Olivia Hays, Savannah Hawkins, Lacy Nye and Lynzie Denbow.