When the competitive cheerleaders began their routine with the cheer, “The Wildcats are here, we’re here to set the tone,” little did they know they were predicting the future: a state championship.
The Custer Wildcats stunted, soared and cheered their way to the top, easily taking first place in the small squad competition at the South Dakota “A” state meet Friday, Oct. 21. The Wildcats finished with a score of 226.5, breaking down to 76.5, 75 and 75 from the three judges, with no safety deductions. Parkston was the next closest with a score of 220.5, followed by Arlington/Lake Preston in third with 215. Fellow Black Hills Conference competitor Hot Springs was ninth with 175.
“We were all just thrilled and shocked,” head coach Mechelle Powers said. “We knew we had done well and hoped for top three in our division.”
Powers said, as the announcers called off the top standings, she was getting more disappointed not hearing Custer’s name — until the team was announced as champion.
“These girls really dominated. The whole season, not just that day,” she said. “We really are one of the best squads in the state.”
“I thought we didn’t place because we have never had a high score like that before,” said Paige Myrick. “When I heard our name, I was just in shock.”
In addition to the small squad state championship title, Custer took third place in the grand championship standings, which combines both small and large squads. Dakota Valley was seven points ahead of Custer, while grand champion Sioux Valley won for its 10th year in a row with 236 as a score.
“The judges were commenting on how great the girls did, how precise and clean the routine was, how solid they looked and their volume. They were loud, all things we have worked on,” Powers said. “I think when the team realizes what they need to focus on, as a coach, that is a phenomenal thing. Now that they have seen how it all comes together, they really understand the sport more and why it is important to work on the different aspects. That will make them even better for years to come.”
“Honestly, if you didn’t know where small group ended and large group began, you’d assume we were competing with the large groups,” said Cherri Block, assistant coach. “There was a definite difference between the other 10 teams in volume, precision, sharp motions, attitude and overall crowd appeal, I think. We definitely set a new tone when it was our turn.”
While Block said she is guilty of complaining about West River contests and how Custer has had limited small squad competition, she now sees that as an advantage.
“I’ve complained that we’re at a disadvantage because we have to compete against large squads, like Belle Fourche, Central and Douglas,” she said. “The state contest made me realize that has become an advantage for us because coaches Powers and Newman don’t make excuses for our size. The girls look at the scores of the bigger schools and ask what they can do to get scores like that. They really work and rise up to that level.”
“We pushed really hard this season and had a lot of people standing by us this year,” said Raylie Hartman. “And we really wanted to make Powers’ last year really special for her.”
“We were definitely more motivated this year than we were last year,” said Emma Zaic.
The girls said this season’s motivation stemmed from last year’s state placement, where Custer took last.
“We were pretty disappointed, but that made us want to work even harder,” Myrick said.
The win was more emotional for Powers, as this will be her last season as a coach.
“This (win) answered prayers for me. God has been a part of my coaching this year,” she said. “This was quite a way to go out.”
In the days leading up to the state meet, Powers said Ashley Parsons, who sat out the conference meet due to a knee injury, was practicing with the team. However, last Wednesday, her injury flared up, forcing the team to restructure.
Parsons and Raylie Hartman switched spots, with the new role being less bending and lifting for Parsons. However, Hartman would serve as a base for flyer Brynn Steed.
“It can be nerve wracking when bases change. You’ve gotten used to how your base moves, gets on count and where and how they grab you for the transition,” Powers said, adding that Steed went through eight transitions in four counts. “Shoutout to her. She did a phenomenal job, as did Raylie and Ashley.”
“Every time someone got hurt, we grew stronger and moved on together,” Myrick said. “We all helped one another, which I think helped us a lot. And we set a really high goal for ourselves this year.”
Powers said she was impressed with how every girl stepped up in the state routine, especially after she changed the ending stunt — literally the day of the meet.
“We had been battling trying to get that last transition catch into a one-footed liberty extension. We hadn’t hit it and I knew we would have to do it at state,” she said.
After talking to Newman, Powers made the decision to change the stunt from a one-footed to a two-footed stunt, with the sides turned out and all three cheerleaders extended. The girls, who were all for it, had just 15 minutes to practice the stunt before hitting the mat.
However, the move didn’t quite work out as they had planned.
“During the competition, the girls knew they couldn’t hit it, so they started at prep level; making it look like we meant to do that,” Powers said.
The girls didn’t lose any points from the stunt and even gained points for the extended pyramid.
“It’s a testament to how good the girls are and how important it was we had done progression as much as we had done,” Powers added.
“We had some easier stunts this year, but they were higher in difficulty,” Grace Lewis said. “Last year, we spent the whole season trying to get the routine right. This year, we got it and had it down in the beginning of the season.”
“We enjoyed our routine more this season,” Myrick added. “Last year, we tried be bigger than we were. This year, we dialed it down and perfected it.”
“I think by us having different people in different roles in the routine, that really helped us overall,” Zaic said.
Powers attributes the successful season to the team’s mentality, which is much different from previous seasons.
“They have the basics down; they know the fundamentals of the sport. From there, they’ve just excelled,” she said.
The season wouldn’t be possible without the support from many others, from former cheerleaders, former coaches, parents, the Booster Club, custodians, athletic director Steph Ornelas, superintendent Mark Naugle, as well as Coach Block and Coach Newman, who will be the new face of cheerleading.
Big thanks also go to wrestling coach Jared Webster, Powers said, who allowed the team to practice in the wrestling room. The extra space allowed the girls to get their basket tosses over 10 feet higher than previous seasons, as well as allowed them to use all seven mats.
“We were able to mark our spots and get in formation for our routines better by using all seven mats,” she said. “The previous three years, that was always the area we dropped off. Having that room has made a huge difference in why we were able to win.”
With the squad losing only two cheerleaders — Sarah Powers and Ashley Parsons — to graduation, Custer is already in a strong position to dominate next season.
“Hopefully we can take first place overall,” Hartman said.
“This was the first state competition for six of the girls,” Powers said. “I think they will come back strong next year, with a few spots to fill.”
“We look forward to this year’s sixth through 11th graders trying out in the spring for next year’s squad,” Block said.