A single sheet of paper hangs on a wall at Cheer 1st, a local cheerleading gym. Beside it, a stereo blares music for practicing squads and a flat screen television replays videos of routines. The piece of paper isn't high tech, but it is possibly just as useful.

It's motivation.

That page is the Cullman High School varsity cheerleaders score sheet from last year's National High School Cheerleading Championship. It was the squad's first year at the Universal Cheerleading Association competition in Orlando, Fla. With a composite score of 419 out of a possible 600 points, that squad was one point shy of the competition's semi-finals.

That's a margin they hope to overcome this year. On Feb. 10-14, the varsity and junior varsity squads will again travel to Orlando for the national competition. This time, coach Donna Heptinstall said they're armed with a better understanding of what they'll be up against.

"We didn't know what to expect and we didn't know how we compared to anyone else," Heptinstall said. But after coming so close to being one of the 24 squads that advanced past the preliminary round, she said they knew they could do it.

"They've come a long way in a year — state champions, and about to be national champions," said K.C. Chamblee, owner of Cheer 1st. Chamblee has coordinated stunts, choreography and music for the squad.

Be aware, though this will only be Cullman's second year in the national competition, this is not an inexperienced squad. The 14 varsity girls have a combined total of 235 years worth of cheerleading experience.

A whole new ball game

The varsity squad did place first in division 5A in a statewide competition hosted by the Alabama High School Athletic Association. But now nationals loom, and the competition demands preparation.

Varsity's 14 squad members combined with the 11 junior varsity girls as they stretched and then warmed up with jumps and tumbling at Cheer 1st on Wednesday. Typical after-school chatter filled the air as Danielle Davis, one of the squad's captains and a CHS senior, led the exercises. Before long, Chamblee stepped in and instructed the girls as Belinda Carlisle's "Heaven is a Place on Earth" filled the gym.

The 25 Cullman cheerleaders look like a tumbling army when practicing their back handsprings and back tucks. The squads have also been working to perfect the tumbling included in their routines. Varsity's routine opens with all 14 girls performing two back handsprings and a back tuck, and the J.V. routine includes all-squad tumbling, as well. Wednesday afternoon both squads worked to ensure their timing was in sync.

In cheerleading, perfection is key. Synchronization counts for only five of 100 possible points from each judge in the upcoming competition, but formations and spacing are worth an additional 10 points, and the sharpness of motions five more.

Emily Grenaway wasn't satisfied with an off-balance landing as she took her turn to tumble.

"It kind of makes me mad because I landed it at state," she said after two back handsprings and a back tuck. Then, with renewed determination, "I'm going to land it again. I'm going to land it now."

The girls encourage each other as they practice their tumbling. As one girl prepared to execute a round off, back handspring, back tuck combination, the others cheered her on:

"Let's go, Amy!"

"Come on, Amy, do it!"

After another girl flips across the mat, a supportive squad member yelled, "That was good, Michaela."

Chamblee sometimes joins in on the girls' banter, teasing them with a girlish laugh you might associate with a stereotypical cheerleader. But don't be fooled — these girls don't hold to the airheaded cheerleader stereotypes.

"We have some really smart girls," said Heptinstall, who teaches math at the school. After the first trimester concluded, she averaged the varsity squad's grades together to find what toll football season took on their academics.

Their average was 89.7 on a 100 point scale.

Basketball season isn't any easier on the girls, particularly with their own competition approaching. They'll practice four days this week for anywhere between 65 minutes and an hour and 10 minutes. Two evenings of basketball games are also on their schedules.

And some of the girls also juggle part time jobs. Courtney Woljevach, for example, left Wednesday's practice promptly at 4:30 p.m. so as not to arrive to work late.

"It's kind of like their heart's in it," Heptinstall said. "I don't have to tell them, most of them, to go that extra mile. They work so hard."

The girls' versatility also shows up in their routines. The girls at the top of stunts (called either "tops" or "flyers") can also base. Bases can switch from the left to the right side of their stunt — and Heptinstall said there have been circumstances when they've had to make those changes.

A new generation

Skills have changed since Heptinstall cheered at J.B. Pennington High School in Blount County. Back then, tumbling was round offs and cartwheels, with an occasional back walk over.

Now, Cullman's girls are required to perform a back handspring, a standing back tuck, jumps and stunts for the squad's tryouts.

But the passion, the allegiance to the school has stayed the same. Heptinstall remembers attending one of her brother's football games the year after she graduated from Pennington. She couldn't sit still for the whole game, and it wasn't until the second half that she realized it was because she had never observed a game from the stands.

Heptinstall, who has been with high school's cheer squads since 1998, said she has recently spoken to girls from last year's squad as well as cheerleaders from the year before. She asked if they were envious of the success that this year's group has had. Past cheerleaders said they were not jealous, but proud of the goals these girls have attained.

"Every year, each group has reached a higher goal," Heptinstall said.

"I think it's still a part of them that they see carry on."

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