Cynthia Blair has told her Lakeside High School competitive cheerleading squad countless times that the state meet is different.
It’s a grandiose arena instead of a high school gym. The competition is faster. There’s inherently more pressure.
Thus, for those who had not experienced it, Saturday was sure to be an eye-opening experience.
“They say it’s so much fun and so awesome,” senior Sydney Umstead, a second-year team member, said several days before the meet. “It’s an experience nothing like any of the competitions we’ve been to before.”
After winning the region meet in the lead-up to state, Lakeside proved it could handle the pressure on the big stage.
The Panthers secured a top-10 finish at the Columbus Civic Center on Saturday.
State features eight region winners advancing directly to the finals, with 24 other teams that finished among the top four in their region vying at Sectionals for the other eight spots in the finals.
For Lakeside, the squad features seven seniors, but it also has four freshmen to go along with its sophomores and juniors. That meant it was important for the seniors to provide leadership.
“I didn’t really know how it was going to be freshman year,” said senior Victoria Smiley, who was with Lakeside at state as a freshman and as a sophomore.
“This year, I could tell everybody how it was going to be so we had a better chance to be in the top 10,” she added. “When we were freshmen, our seniors didn’t tell us what to expect.”
Lakeside didn’t make state last year, but has advanced in four of the past five years.
For Blair, building the program is about finding the right type of student-athlete.
“I like getting girls that have a strong work ethic, who want to be here and have drive and passion,” she said.
Blair stressed that these characteristics aren’t required only during the season. Building key skills year-round, with the help of off-season training, has helped her team compete at the highest level.
Blair said competitive cheerleading continues to fight past stereotypes.
“Cheerleading is not what it used to be,” she said. “It’s not just cheering on the sidelines on Friday nights anymore.
“The competitive side actually puts in gymnastics skills,” she added. “You have to be strong to be able to lift those stunts repeatedly, and there’s the danger factor of the stunting.”