(Myrtle Beach, SC) – About three years ago, when Georgia Northwestern first began its cheerleading program, head coach Karen Stoker admittedly didn’t know too much about the sport on the collegiate level.
Today, she can add College National Championship Coach on her resume.
The Cheer Cats became the first team in the 10-year history of the athletic department of Georgia Northwestern to win a national title when they took home top honors of the collegiate division at the Eastern Cheer and Dance Nationals in Mrytle Beach, S.C. on Sunday.
“When we started the program, I didn’t know if we would ever be a competition squad,” she said on Sunday night. “I spent the first year just recruiting and trying to become knowledgeable about college cheerleading. I was just happy with the way we were supporting our teams, so when the kids (last year) wanted to try and earn a bid to nationals, I was just thrilled when they got one.”
Just 12 months later, Stoker will have a bright, shiny new national championship trophy to sell to potential recruits.
“For me personally, I’m tickled, but it’s really all about the kids and how important this is to them,” she continued. “Today was a good day and was a good feeling for all the kids to walk up on stage and get that national championship banner and trophy. I’m one content coach.”
Coming off a seventh-place showing in their division at the National Cheerleading Association nationals in Florida in April of 2015, the Cheer Cats had earned a return trip to NCA Nationals last summer through their performance at a cheer camp in Louisville, Ky.
But when the squad ended up losing some of its athletes to due to injury and other reasons and did not have enough athletes to compete in NCA, Stoker set out to find a new national competition for her squad.
“I found Eastern Cheer and Dance and it offered a good division for us where we didn’t have to compete against the larger Division I schools,” she explained.
Stoker said the squad scored high from the judges in the Game Day part of the routine and “expressed themselves really well as college cheerleaders.” The Cheer Cats ended with 439 points – 437.25 after a deduction – but still had a high enough score to take home the championship.
“Our pyramids and tosses were pretty strong,” she added. “We did well with jumps and tumbling and the judges said we had good crowd appeal. It wasn’t a perfect routine – we did have the one deduction – but the things we did, we did well.”
With the win, the Cheer Cats also earned a bid to the U.S. Finals, which Stoker compared to getting a bid to the Olympic Trials.
“It’s something we’ll be looking into,” she said. “I’m not sure if we’ll end up going or not, but it’s nice to open that (championship) packet and know we have that option.”
David Stephenson, the school’s Athletic Director and the person who helped bring Stoker in to start up the program at Georgia Northwestern, said the national championship was something that could only help the athletic department as a whole.
“When we started talking about having cheerleading a few years ago, I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “But having (the Cheer Cats) has brought a different dynamic to our whole athletic department. It’s another great recruiting tool. It helps to get the Bobcat brand out there and adding something of this prestige will only enhance it.
“Karen and her staff do a great job and always have so it’s nice to see it all culminate with this. I’m proud for all the kids and happy for her and her staff.”
Stoker said to end the year in this fashion was a thrill for both the cheerleaders coming back and the ones that will be leaving the program.
“For the four that will be leaving us – Selena Dupree, Virgil McCoy, Mayvit Sandoval and Codie Weldon (Shredder, the school’s Bobcat mascot) – it’s a great way to go out,” she said. “And for the ones coming back, it’s a great way to springboard into a new year. They are already making big plans for next year.”
Stoker also expressed her gratitude to Grant and Rachel Magness of Hot Shots in Rome for helping the team with its choreography.