With a limited number of spectators allowed into the Clemens Field grandstands, the typical noise level usually heard at a home football game was missing on Thursday night. No oohs and aahs on big plays, no band playing the fight song, no student section displaying their enthusiasm and fewer parents challenging game officials.
But even though the atmosphere was a bit off because of COVID-19 restrictions, Philomath High’s cheerleaders could be found in their usual spot in front of the grandstands.
“It is very exciting and also a little nerve-wracking because we’re not game ready,” fifth-year PHS cheer coach Kathy Kohler said last week prior to the appearance.
Senior Ruth Cropp, PHS team captain, said the squad was excited to be able to cheer.
“We definitely thought we weren’t going to be able to go to the football game so it was something that surprised us,” Cropp said.
Although the students had an exhilarating experience with the appearance, cheerleading involves a whole lot more than motivating the Warriors and their fans on game nights. They have competitions of their own, including all-state events and recognition for the top performers.
Like most other student activities, the pandemic has been hard on participation levels. Kohler held tryouts in May and a month later, formed the team.
“In June 2020, I had 18 kids on my roster,” she said. “I dropped down to three about a month ago and then I pulled in three more.”
Workouts got started in August and continued into December. Athletic programs with specific seasons had a certain number of weeks when they could voluntarily practice. But since cheer has no defined season, the program could spread out its practices. Kohler said they had two-hour practices twice per week.
The cheerleaders took a break that began in December and continued until the second week of January. COVID risk levels no longer allowed practices inside the gym and then winter break arrived. The team jumped to five days a week in early February.
Cropp said she wanted to stay involved.
“I really like the team and so I just wanted to stick with them,” Cropp said. “They acted like they depend on me a lot so I wanted to stick it through, even though it’s harder and different this year.”
In addition to Cropp, the squad also includes seniors Amelia Cleveland, Nicole Ferguson and Maija Moore, sophomore Ashley Kohler and freshman Taylor Beddingfield.
Two PHS cheerleaders — Cropp and Beddingfield — participated in the Oregon Cheerleading Coaches Association all-state competition on March 13, an event that showcases cheerleading skills. A third cheerleader, Ashley Kohler, was also planning to participate but she was sidelined with a hamstring injury.
“It’s an individual thing and normally we would take them — it was supposed to be at South Albany this year,” Coach Kohler said. “The entire state comes in and it’s one kid at a time so it’s a very long day and they all do the same thing and get scored on that.”
Instead, it was a virtual competition with cheerleaders sending in video recordings.
“The scores this year weren’t what we hoped they would be,” Kohler said. “The virtual was nice because they got more than one shot … we recorded several times and picked the best one.”
Cropp said the all-state individual competition was basically the same.
“It was definitely harder this year because we didn’t have as much access — like normally we would go to Peak (gymnastics academy in Corvallis) and practice tumbling there but we weren’t able to do that because of COVID, obviously, so our tumbling skills weren’t as good as they could’ve been,” Cropp said.
“Everything else was just the same … we just didn’t have a crowd,” she added. “We learn a dance a month in advance and a cheer a month in advance. So, we do those and have our running and tumbling and do jumps and we have standing tumbling.”
The participants could watch each other with links provided to each performance.
“There were definitely some advantages in some areas and disadvantages in others,” Kohler said. “It just kind of helps us know what we need to work on individually.”
Kohler said it’s strange to not perform live.
“You don’t get the feedback and the energy from the crowd,” she said. “The callbacks, part of what we do is crowd-leading, we try to get the crowd to engage with us and there is no crowd.”
When performances are being recorded for entry into various events, the rules prohibit others from cheering them on.
“One of the guidelines on our videos is all bystanders have to be quiet so they can hear because one of the things we’re scored on is projection,” Kohler said.
OCCA all-state was the first competition this year that featured Philomath cheerleaders. Virtual team competitions got started this past weekend but Philomath won’t enter any of those until mid-April.
Said Kohler, “We don’t have our full routine yet, so we’ve been working on that every Monday” when a choreographer comes in.
When the team practices inside the gymnasium, there are limitations on what they can do. The squad heads outside and practices “building” — the full-contact maneuvers — under the protective covering outside the middle school.
“As of right now, all of our competitions will be virtual so we record a video and send it in,” Kohler said. “Every week, they have a catch-phrase or something so you can’t submit the same video multiple times.”
The team’s work on a routine all leads to the state competition that’s planned for May 15 — if the current plans materialize.
“They’re really pushing to try to get our state in-person,” Kohler said. “They’re looking for outdoor venues where we can perform. I think right now, they’re looking at the fairgrounds in Salem.”
Kohler expects the cheer program to be active through June.
“Am I where I want to be? No,” Kohler said. “Do I have COVID to thank for that? Yes.”
Kohler said the team was looking forward to heading to Tualatin this week for a clinic with an all-star group.
“Team bonding is big for me,” she said. “You can only bond so much over Zoom.”
As for future football games, the Warriors did schedule another one at Clemens Field for April 3 against Stayton. The cheerleaders are expecting to also participate in that one.
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