Eagles Cheerleaders Fly to National Competition
Writer: Travis Wagoner
Eastern High School’s cheerleading team didn’t qualify for the Kentucky state tournament four years ago. In February of this year, the Eagles soared to a top-10 finish in the largest and most prestigious cheerleading competition in the country – the Universal Cheerleading Association National High School Championship held at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida.
It wasn’t Eastern’s first trip to the competition. In 2016, the Eagles finished eighth. This year, the Eagles bested that performance, finishing in seventh place out of 68 teams in the largest, most competitive division. Eastern was the only Jefferson County Public School to advance to the finals.
Such an accomplishment was the result of the team’s dedication to their sport, desire to succeed and stellar leadership from first-year head coach Tyra Anderson. A 2012 Eastern alumna, Anderson cheered for four years for her alma mater and joined the coaching staff as an assistant in 2014. In addition to serving as Eastern’s head coach, Anderson is on the staff for the GymTyme All-Stars, a competitive travel team in Louisville, and is working toward a Master’s degree in managerial studies. She began cheerleading in fourth grade and cheered competitively for GymTyme in addition to Eastern.
Like their coach, many of the Eagles shouted their first cheers at an early age. Most started at about age 5. Eastern boasts 21 team members. Eleven of them represent their school in competition and three are alternates. In addition to cheering for Eastern, six team members compete at the national level for GymTyme. Between Eastern and GymTyme, some of the girls practice up to six hours per day.
“I enjoy the sisterhood that’s formed,” says senior and co-captain Claire Dzan, who has been cheering for eight years. “Cheerleading is essentially a year-round sport, and you grow with the girls around you so much – mentally and skill-wise.”
The Eagles’ road to Orlando began last November at Rupp Arena in Lexington, where 500 teams from across the Commonwealth competed in the Universal Cheerleading Association Bluegrass Regionals. Eastern won their division, securing a bid to the national competition, which would be the team’s seniors’ last.
“I feel extremely accomplished and proud of myself, Coach Tyra (Anderson) and my teammates,” says Jordan Marion, a senior and co-captain. “We all put in a lot of work to achieve these accomplishments, and it wasn’t an easy process. I feel blessed and honored to end my years with the Eastern High School cheer program on such a high note.”
The Universal Cheerleading Association National High School Championship provided an international stage. ESPN and ESPN2 broadcast the competition to more than 100 million homes in the U.S. and 32 countries. Fifteen thousand student-athletes representing 800 teams were among the 50,000 attendees
“It was wonderful to watch the team grow and reach this milestone,” Anderson says. “The girls were very proud. For me, it was a big moment to see all their hard work pay off. I always tell them that they have to put in the work to have these accomplishments and see it come to life.”
Dzan agrees. “It feels amazing to see the results of dedication,” she says. “Our consistency has really paid off, and being able to look back at the journey as a whole is rewarding.”
Anderson has watched the team grow in her four years as a coach. The senior members of the team were freshmen when Anderson joined the coaching staff. Her goal was and is to improve the Eastern cheerleading program.
“When I was in high school, cheerleading wasn’t as competitive as it is now,” she says. “To go to nationals and place seventh, I’m definitely hungry for more. Next season I’d like to place first or second overall at the state competition and have a top-five finish at nationals.”
The Eagles’ journey to next season starts this spring. Practices will get underway in May after open team tryouts and will continue through the summer. Team members’ only month off is April. For the team members who also cheer for the GymTyme All-Stars, it’s a year-round sport.
“I think a lot of people hear ‘cheerleading’ and they just think of girls standing on the sidelines at a game and that it’s not a sport,” Anderson says. “But I like the athleticism it takes to do it and the intricate skills. There’s tumbling, jumping and stunting, and it’s evolved so much in the last 10 or 20 years. It’s always evolving, and that’s why I like it.
“It feels amazing to see the results of dedication,” Dzan adds. “Our consistency has really paid off, and being able to look back at the journey as a whole is rewarding.”
“I love the bonds that are formed and lifelong friendships that are made,” Marion says. “It’s fun to get to come to practices and be with your teammates who are also your best friends.”
In addition to being best friends and among the best cheerleaders in the state and nation, the Eagles are also some of the top performing student-athletes at Eastern. Their success on the cheerleading mats is rivaled only by their success in the classroom.
“They’re talented student-athletes,” Anderson says. “I commend them because I cheered myself, and I know it’s not easy, especially with practicing that much in addition to going to school. All of the girls have extremely good GPAs. A majority of them have at least a 3.5 GPA or above, and two seniors have a 4.0 or higher.”
Performing well academically and athletically are part of being a high school student-athlete. Fundraising is also a source of hard work and commitment. The team is supported by its own booster program, but team members also work to secure the funding to travel to competitions. The Eagles sell candy bars and cookie dough, and host an annual cheerleading camp and competition. Additionally, they hold several restaurant nights each year at which supporting restaurants donate a percentage of an evening’s profit to the team.
“This truly is a group of hardworking, talented girls,” Anderson says. “They’re extremely passionate about their sport and willing to put in the dedication and time that it takes to be this successful. That’s something that really made a difference this season.”