Give Me A C-H-A-M-P-S!
Burlco cheerleaders take home their own national title
By Heather Morse

Cheerleading at Burlington Township High School is serious business. The varsity squad is known for qualifying, and then ranking high, in national competitions. But this year, they scored their own milestone – defeating 412 other high school teams from around the country to become the first New Jersey squad to earn a national title.

The team prepared for the national competition – held by the Universal Cheerleaders Association in Orlando, Fla. – much like other serious sports teams do: running bleachers and lifting weights. Of course, they also practiced complex dance routines with back flips, handsprings and jumps – all perfectly synchronized and executed with a smile.

The varsity and junior varsity squads – JV placed third overall in the national competition – train throughout the school year and attend a summer camp in the Poconos. During football and basketball seasons, the teams uphold the traditional role of cheerleading at games and pep rallies. But come winter, the squads turn up their intensity and train for the cheerleading competition season.

The varsity squad has competed at the national level for the past 11 years and has been named a finalist five times, including a third-place finish last year. During this year’s preliminary round of the competition, the squad earned the highest score in their group, allowing them to skip the semifinals and advance straight to the final round.

For Kim Gaskin, the program’s head coach for the past 23 years, the team’s success on the stage has transferred to the girls’ everyday lives. “Cheerleading has also become a mechanism for building leadership skills in these young girls,” she says. “Many of our girls have discovered that it has opened doors for them at some of the best colleges in the country,” with several earning scholarships to attend – and cheer at – Yale, Arizona State, Rutgers and Hofstra Universities.

Aside from their role on the team, the girls are expected to attend mandatory study halls, earn good grades and do community service, says Gaskin. “We want to help them become well-rounded athletes. We tell the girls that when they wear ‘Burlington’ on their uniforms, they’re representing our school and community, so we expect them to uphold certain standards.”

Tryouts for the squads are held each May, and the competition is fierce. Typically, more than 40 girls vie for the coveted 12 spots on the varsity squad. Everyone must try out – even team members from last year – and all are required to spend three days learning dance routines, stunts, tumbling combinations, jumps and cheers before performing for the coaches on the final day of tryouts.

Gaskin explains that the routines the squads perform at competitions are chock full of complicated choreography, tumbling and stunts. “It’s a two-and-a-half minute routine, and it has to display as much creativity and execution of their skills as possible.”

Though the school recognizes cheerleading as a sport, and thereby provides the team members with their uniforms, the squad members raise funds year round to help defray travel costs and entry fees associated with their competitions. They sell concessions at other sporting events and even hold their own cheerleading competitions and clinics for younger girls hoping to make the squad someday.

After years of success, Gaskin believes they are shattering some stereotypes about cheerleaders. “We’re overcoming some of the old biases about cheerleaders just standing on the sidelines,” she says. “These days, we’re giving young girls the opportunity to demonstrate their diversity, creativity and athleticism through cheerleading.”

September 2011
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