By CAMRYN KAUFFMAN     4/17/2024

Mater Dei High School  here in the heart of Orange County, California, is a powerhouse in any number of things.


Football, for one thing. Cheerleading, for another.

The Mater Dei cheerleading team took second in 2022 and third in 2023 at the UCA National High School Cheerleading Championships. Silver and bronze – but not gold.

What, Mater Dei cheer coach Katie Bowers thought to herself, needs to change?

The routine, that’s what.


On Feb. 12, at the 2024 nationals in Florida, Mater Dei won its first national title since the 1980s.

The team won with an overall score of 95.6 in a field of 108 teams from across the country.

The changes to the routine included a dynamic opening stunt and more spinning skills.

To win, though, the Monarchs also had to overcome a series of late-season setbacks that could have easily derailed anyone’s title hopes.

“We had to step up for each other a lot during those months,” junior Trudy Schmidt said.

In December, a flyer – a cheerleader who is lifted or thrown into the air during stunts – hurt her ankle during practice so badly she was out for the remainder of the season.

There’s never a good time to get hurt during cheer season, but losing a key position like a flyer? And in December?

Typically, injuries happen during the summer or very early in the school year, Bowers said. That often gives the girls plenty of time to recover. By December, routines are being fine-tuned.

Insert Sydney Lovely.

“I didn’t think it was actually going to happen,” Lovely, a freshman, recalled thinking after she received a Dec. 7 phone call telling her to get ready to join the varsity squad.

Typically, it can take between six and eight months to learn certain skills. Usually, getting really good takes up to two years.

“She had, what, 60 days?” Schmidt said.

Throughout December and January, practices could go for six hours straight to ensure Lovely was getting the reps she needed. Lovely’s stunt group consistently stayed 30 minutes after practice to get a few more reps in.

“We had to just always be encouraging because, for Sydney filling in, you can’t pressure her, you have to stay positive,” Schmidt said. “If we stressed her out, we weren’t going to succeed at all.”

“That little girl definitely is our shining star for the season because if she doesn’t step up, then we don’t get to the championship,” Bowers said. “We call her ‘the lifesaver.’”

At one point, Bowers’ squad also had to deal with girls dealing with a dislocated finger and a torn meniscus.

“It was a lot of blood, sweat and tears every single day,” junior Natalie Cazales said.

“When the struggles are that hard, it makes the successes that much better,” Bowers said.

The season, though, wouldn’t just be about Lovely saving the day or girls pushing through injuries. It had to be about a different mindset.

The 19 girls on the varsity squad started their trip to Orlando by going on the log ride at Disney’s Animal Kingdom – a sort of symbolic way to “wash away the bad vibes” from coming up just short the two years prior.

With nine juniors on the team, seven on varsity their entire high school careers, all they knew was the feeling of coming up just short. Not this year.

“I think working as hard as we did this year really helped us get to the top,” senior Naydine Lopez said. “No matter what came in our way, we still pushed and fought our way to the top.”

In addition, the girls said they switched up their traditional route for warmups and their backstage routine, trading out their usual stuff for dance parties to some of their favorite songs. They were looser than in the past, and it was fun.

The girls made plain that their parents, too, were all-in: with resources, time and too-many-to-count back-and-forths to practice.

Bowers said she thought nearly every parent made the trip down to nationals.

The Mater Dei cheer parents, however, aren’t your typical parents. They’re much flashier – in a good way.

Gerry Cazales, Natalie’s dad, said he got all the Monarch parents to wear red tutus and Mater Dei jerseys while sporting red glasses and tennis shoes.

When Natalie was a freshman, he said, he was the only parent in a jersey and tutu. This past season? Every single parent.

All of them, all in.

“We don’t do it for the show or for the fun of us parents,” Gerry Cazales said. “It’s to show the girls that we’re definitely supporting them 100%.”

Besides Mater Dei parents, the Orlando crowd was full of thousands of girls and parents from other schools, including the Monarch cheer team’s usual practice companion, Downey High School in Los Angeles County – by SoCal traffic standards, a half-hour or so drive from Mater Dei.

“Whichever way you looked, you had someone encouraging you, cheering you on, so we were feeding off of that energy,” Natalie Cazales said.

So, was it all worth it? Is winning everything they say it is?

Nearly in unison, the girls said: “Yes!”