There's been quite a bit to cheer about this year for the Dover/CR Raiders Pop Warner Cheerleading team.
After winning the Henlopen Conference and the Eastern Region championship in November, the Raiders qualified for the national championships in Orlando, Fla.
On Dec. 4, the team, comprised of 10-13-year-old girls from across Kent County, competed in the Pop Warner Cheerleading National Championships at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, where they were crowned the nation's top peewee cheerleading squad, defeating nine other teams from across the United States.
It was an exciting finish to a whirlwind fall season for the girls.
The 11-member team began practicing in August at Faith Life Ministries near Cheswold before taking to the sidelines at Central Middle School each weekend to support the Raiders football team. In October, the girls took part in their first competition, winning the Henlopen Conference title at the Wicomico Civic Center in Salisbury, Md.
Less than two weeks later, it was on to the Liacouras Center in Philadelphia, where they again placed first – this time against a deeper pool of talent. That victory earned the Raiders a spot at regionals, held at Sun National Bank Center in Trenton, N.J.
Competing against champions from New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the Raiders took first place in level three of the peewee division, earning a place at nationals.
"Pop Warner cheerleading is very safety driven," said head coach Ashley Bermel. "The girls do some spectacular stuff, but safety is very much involved. Still, it's extremely competitive. Everyone is trying to do the best they can."
Bermel, like the teams' other four coaches, has no cheerleading experience, which makes the Raiders' success all the more impressive.
"The program started six years ago. My daughter wanted to be on the team and I was just a mother, but the coach at that time left and so I picked it up so the team wouldn't fold or fall apart," she said.
In the last few years Bermel has learned more than she ever could have imagined about cheerleading. She's also learned that it pays to delegate. That's why the team has four other coaches, each in charge of a specific component of the team. For example, James Harrison is in charge of conditioning, while Ashley Newsome handles choreography.
The championship routine lasted 2 minutes, 30 seconds, and while the majority of the routine included dancing and tumbling stunts, the girls were required to summon their sideline spirit for a cheering segment, which included some crowd participation.
It was an intricate routine, all put together with just a few practice opportunities.
"We won regionals on Nov. 18 and basically had a week or so of preparation before heading to Disney," Bermel said. "So we had a conversation with the girls and we said, 'do you want to just go enjoy Disney and be happy we got there or do you want to be national champions?' They all wanted to go there and win."
Page 2 of 2 - But it was difficult for the team in the run-up to the competition. After all the effort it took just to qualify for nationals, the team had to work hard to raise money to offset the cost of the trip. Within only a few days the team organized a bake sale, a chili cook-off and sold Chick-fil-A key chains to try to offset the cost for each cheerleader.
On top of that, one of the team members was hospitalized with an illness before the trip, while another suffered a wrist injury.
"It seemed like everything was going wrong, and then we had one practice in Florida before the competition and it was awful," Bermel said. "But the girls pulled it all together. They competed for one another."
Assistant coach James Harrison said winning at regionals gave the team belief.
"We've always done well at the qualifiers but we were never able to move past regionals," Harrison said. "There had been a lot of tears [in previous years.]"
Twelve-year-old Zelena Harris said she'll never forget how this Raiders team came together and performed at their best when it mattered most.
"[I'll remember] how we came together as a team to get to the top," she said.
For 13-year-old Kaitlin Callahan and 11-year-old Jennifer Moran, the season was all about forging strong friendships and making new memories.
Sarah Cacoilo, 13, said one memory in particular would endure.
"We went to Disney and heard our names called as champions," she said. "We were the best."
Dover/CR Raiders team members