TuHS Varsity Cheer & Stunt is USA Spirit National Cheer Champion

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The Tualatin High School Varsity Cheer & Stunt Team overcame some challenges to take first place at the 2023 USA Spirit National Cheer Competition in Anaheim, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 25.

For starters, the team, which won in the co-ed varsity intermediate division, was on board the last flight out of PDX on Feb. 22 just as a historic snowstorm was moving into the metro area.

Post-competition, head coach Crystal Corona, assistant coach Maria Castillo, and juniors Hunter Smith, Emily Kleps and Ashlee Jackson sat down to talk about the experience. Kleps, Smith and Jackson were on the varsity cheer team last year, with Smith making the team almost by accident. The football player accompanied his sister to the cheer team try-outs and ending up earning a spot on the team himself.

In Anaheim, the teams were placed in divisions based on size and if they were co-ed, and there were 11 teams in the co-ed varsity intermediate division. The preliminary round of competition was held Friday, Feb. 24, and the top 50 percent placed. 

TuHS made the first cut and ended up in second place out of the top three teams, which all advanced to the finals. “We went in with no expectations,” Jackson said. “After the finals were over, the winners were announced. When they announced the third-place team, we were like, yay, we got second.

The TuHS winning cheer team family includes (from left) head coach Crystal Corona, assistant coach Maria Castillo, Hunter Smith, Emily Kleps and Ashlee Jackson.
The TuHS winning cheer team family includes (from left) head coach Crystal Corona, assistant coach Maria Castillo, Hunter Smith, Emily Kleps and Ashlee Jackson. Barbara Sherman/Tualatin Life

“But when they called the second-place team and we knew we had won, we just started screaming, which led to some confusion. The judges thought they were giving the trophy to the wrong team.”

In the hotel afterwards, the team partied most of the night and left the hotel at 6:30 a.m. the next morning to go to Disneyland. “I couldn’t feel my feet by the end,” Jackson said.

To qualify for the competition, Corona submitted a video of their competition routine for a virtual regional competition, which they started rehearsing back in November and is full of pyramids, standing tumbling, running tumbling, jumps and more.

Oregon’s competitive season starts in January, and coed cheer teams in divisions 1-A through 6-A compete against each other. TuHS took second place in state on Feb. 11. “In Oregon the competition season starts late,” Corona said. “Other states start in October, so it is a disadvantage for Oregon teams.”

Castillo added, “You have to look at the guidelines and rules for each state to do each routine. Crystal did the entire routine herself. Some teams pay coaches thousands of dollars to choreograph their routines.”

Corona explained, “I watch a lot of videos for ideas. But there are lots of cool things you see that you can’t do in high school. I look at what other teams are doing and adapt and adjust them, or sometimes I get an idea off the top of my head.”

According to Corona, Oregon and California have different requirements and regulations and use different score sheets, so the team basically had to learn two different routines. “From the start, we focused on the state routine and after that the tournament routine,” she said.

Castillo said, “We have the best opening of any team. The first 10 seconds gives me goosebumps.” 

According to Castillo, the TuHS competitive cheer team has 17 members including two male students who participated in the state competition and 22 members in the inter-state team competition.

The Spirit National Cheer Competition includes teams not only from Oregon but also Arizona, California, Utah and Washington. In addition, the Universal Cheerleader Association holds competitions for teams from all over the U.S., “and my long-term goal would be to win it,” Corona said.

Just because the competition season is over doesn’t mean the cheer team has disbanded. “We still cheer for the boys basketball games, so it is pretty much all year round,” Jackson said. “And they cheer for the girls basketball games too,” Castillo added.

Corona has been a coach for 12 years, and this is the second year for her and Castillo to coach at TuHS. “When I was approached by the Athletic Department to take over the program, I was told they wanted it to be competitive again,” Corona said.

Castillo praised Corona’s coaching style and comprehensive approach to the job. “She has a schedule with little notes all over it, and every minute is accounted for,” she said. “We only practice two days a week, and no time is wasted.”

Students must try out for the team every year, and “every year we start from scratch,” Jackson said. “We take tumbling classes off-site, and if we have a performance, we do a run-through the night before. The week before the national competition, one girl got hurt, and we had to re-do the routine.”

Corona added, “We tweak the routine a lot anyway. There are a lot of changes made.”

And there are more victories to achieve. “We still need to win the state title,” Corona said.

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