Back to prove it

(Originally published in the February 2009 issue of Fusion magazine, www.bigrapidsnews.com)

New coaches, young team are springing past expectations

By Lindsey Wahowiak

Fusion Editor

REMUS — When the returning state champion Chippewa Hills High School cheerleading team hits the floor, it’s easy to miss the team’s coaches. Krystle Downs and Jessica Simon blend right in with their charges — they’re barely out of high school themselves.

Downs, 22, took over as head coach this year after longtime coach Jenna Ruddell left the district. A former Chippewa Hills cheerleader herself, Downs flipped at the opportunity to work with the team again, to continue with the state-champion program that’s taken the title in 2006 and 2008.

She has her detractors. Cheerleading is one of the most successful athletic programs at Chippewa Hills, but some people still don’t see it as a “real” sport, despite the 5 a.m. practices, the gravity-defying flips and tosses, the constant possibility of injury and the fierce competitive nature of cheer tournaments. And after Ruddell built the program from the ground up, Downs said the state’s cheerleading community wondered if anyone would be able to continue Ruddell’s momentum.

That’s why the team’s motto this year is “Back to prove it, baby.”

“We’re a Cinderella story,” Downs admits. “I don’t think people expect us to win. But we were ranked second in the state after our first competition (this season). That’s huge.”

Downs and Simon both cheered under Ruddell, so they’ve built their coaching strategy around the things she taught them. It helps them relate with their team, Downs said — but it’s hard not to, since they’re all around the same age. They spend every day together, practicing, coaching middle-school cheerleaders and team building.

That doesn’t mean the coaches don’t push their team to the limit every day. Downs said they practice at a 12, so they can get that perfect 10 in competition. There aren’t any slackers because there can’t be — the team only has 11 girls, with no bench to pull from. Every one has to pull her own weight.

“We’re awesome, and we fought our butts off to get it that way,” Downs said. “It’s hard, really hard … but if you want that state title you have to work for it. We don’t sit on our butts and do each other’s hair at practice. We run, workout and do everything (other athletes) do.”

So far, it’s paying off.

The Warriors have done well in their competitions as they move toward the state tournament on March 7 at the Delta Plex in Comstock Park.

Simon said she feels some pressure as the state meet grows closer, but she and Downs, as well as the team, find inspiration in their former coach and in each other.

“It’s scary because you have a high expectation,” she said. “Krystle and I both were coached by Jenna (like most of the team) so all we know is what Jenna taught us too. Krystle knew coming in she didn’t know everything, but she is one of those people ready to learn everything.”

The Warriors appreciate that in Downs. She and Simon can be “in your face” during routines — just like any coach — but know that’s the only way to get to their ultimate goal: Gold. After all, they’re building off the foundation Ruddell laid.

“She is like a soul sister for me,” Downs said. “We coach the same way Jenna would and it’s going great.

“We’re not ready to give up our title to anyone yet.”

Krista Voss, a senior on this year’s team, knows what it’s like to have thousands of fans cheering for her squad of cheerleaders. She also knows what it feels like to come in second, like the team did in 2007. Her goals are to meet her coaches’ expectations: Be back to prove it.

Last year’s victory is still fresh in senior Alaina Dague’s memory, as well. She said this season, the state championship is even more important to the team.

“There is just a lot of heart and  soul on this team,” she said. “The coaching staff are pushing us and we’re constantly striving to do our best.

“There may be people doubting us — we believe in ourselves.”


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