Along with the jock and the nerd, the cheerleader is an iconic high school archetype freighted with stereotypes.
But a look at the pep squad at JSerra Catholic High School shatters some common misperceptions about members of high school cheer and dance squads — namely, that pep squad members only cheer at football games, and that only the prettiest and most popular girls make the cut.
“A lot of people think we just practice before football games and then go out and cheer, but this is a 12-month program,” says Mandy Morgan, head coach of the JSerra Pep Squad, who also is director of OC All-Stars Cheer & Dance and is the varsity cheer coach at El Toro High School.
“We work year round. And first and foremost, our main objective is school spirit,” Morgan adds. “We’re at all sporting events, including basketball games, water polo, ice hockey, and at various school functions.
“And being the most gorgeous person in the world isn’t a requirement.”
Despite the image of carefree glamour associated with pep squads, members are on a serious mission.
“Ultimately, they’re role models for the school,” says Morgan, a native Texan who cheered at her high school in Dallas and at Oklahoma State University. At first meetings with prospective pep squad members before tryouts, Morgan drives home the point of being role models with students and parents.
“They need to take their job to heart and represent the school well,” she says. “And I would rather have a kid with heart and desire than talent.”
Indeed, the mission statement of the JSerra Pep Squad makes it clear that members are representatives of the Catholic values the school upholds.
“This is reflected in all of your words and actions, on and off campus, and especially when dressed in uniform or any other JSerra-labeled apparel,” the statement reads. “Throughout your commitment, it is imperative that you conduct yourself in a polite, modest and respectful manner at all times, and participate in Pep Squad activities and events with pride, honor and enthusiasm.”
Because it’s a relatively young school — JSerra opened in 2003 — the school’s pep squad program is not as well entrenched as other Trinity League members, such as Mater Dei, Orange Lutheran and Santa Margarita high schools. (Rosary High School has a pep squad that teams up with Cornelia Connelly School to perform at Servite High School events.)
When Morgan, 28, took over the pep squad two years ago, her goal was to invigorate a program that was in need of a jolt of energy. For example, only four girls were on the dance team when Morgan came aboard.
By bolstering the coaching staff with fresh talent and making the pep squad more visible at school functions, the dance team now is up to 12 girls, Morgan says. JSerra’s varsity cheer squad now totals 25 members and the junior varsity cheer squad has 16. (There is only one dance team, for varsity.)
Morgan gives a lot of credit for JSerra’s reinvigorated pep squad to her staff, which includes Varsity Coach Brittany Scholl, JV Coach Kylie Saunders and Dance/Song Team Coach Anabel Juco. Stacy von der Linder is pep squad advisor.
JSerra pep squad members must maintain a GPA of 2.0 and participate in fundraising events. And becoming a cheer or dance team member costs in the neighborhood of $3,000 per year, which pays for equipment, uniforms, camp fees, competition fees and transportation costs.
It’s a no-brainer that football players, and other high school athletes, risk injury. So do members of pep squads — which is why Morgan takes her role at JSerra very seriously.
“Just like with any sport in high school, there are always safety concerns with cheerleading,” Morgan says. “I believe with strong coaches who know what they’re teaching, spotting new things and making sure the kids understand what they are doing, you can take a lot of the so-called danger out of our sport.”
Morgan added that to be on a pep squad performing at the level that the JSerra cheerleaders and dancers do, members must be well conditioned physically and mentally.
“Some days the girls are out in the hot sun for hours putting others above their heads or flipping upside down repeatedly until it’s perfect for a performance,” Morgan says. “This takes not only physical talent but also mental strength to endure and keep going.”
All the hard work being put in by this year’s JSerra Pep Squad is paying off.
The squad has a shot at qualifying again for the USA Nationals in Anaheim in March 2016, thanks to a standout performance at the 2015 National Cheerleaders Association’s Cheer/Dance Camp. To make it to the nationals, the JSerra girls will have to make it past the regional competition in January.
Morgan believes they will.
“JSerra cheer and dance has what it takes and continues to train and gain skills to make themselves and their school proud.”