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Castle View High School's coed varsity cheer team had an unusual season this year. The team didn't win a single competition until the week before state championships. That's uncharacteristic for them, said head coach Heather Acampora, who along with some of her athletes spoke candidly about the slow start to their 2017 season.
“It took us all that time just to finally get them to work as a team. And it wasn't for lack of ability, it just takes that long to get a routine that difficult and hit it. We could have dumbed it down, we just didn't much,” Acampora said.
Losing, although a bitter experience, humbled the team, she said, and became the motivation they used to perfect their performance.
In the end, it paid off.
This year for the fourth year in a row, Castle View High School's coed varsity cheer team won the Class 4A/5A state championship. The competition was held at the Denver Coliseum on Dec. 8 and 9.
Amanda Campbell, whose son Lucas, a 15-year-old sophomore, is in his first year on the team, said the arena went wild as Castle View performed during finals.
“It wasn't perfect,” she acknowledged, before adding, “When Castle View got up, I mean, the crowd, you should have heard the crowd.”
The attention came from friends and family of the athletes, but also from other teams at the competition, the team said. Seating reserved at the Coliseum for supporters of whichever team is currently performing filled up early, Campbell said. Not all Castle View families could get spots.
“It's really nerve-wracking because you just walk in and, having Castle View on your chest, you know that people are looking at you,” said 17-year-old senior Lizzi Jung, who explained the team's winning streak at state has gained them name recognition within the cheer world.
“I feel like that puts a lot of pressure on the team,” she said.
Athletes said this year they went from people staring at them because they made noticeable mistakes during regular season performances to people staring at them, and congratulating them for nailing their state routine.
Acampora said things turned around when the team learned to focus not on winning, but on performing their best. “Hitting” a routine, or performing without mistakes, became the goal, athletes said.
“That feeling felt better than winning,” said Gracelyn Petrauskas, a 16-year-old sophomore.
State results available online show Castle View five points ahead of the state runner-up, Mountain Vista High School, despite a two-point deduction.
Next, the 23 varsity athletes will compete in the National High School Cheerleading Championship in Orlando, Florida on Feb. 10 and 11.
Acampora has entered the team in three divisions at nationals — the Medium Varsity Coed Division; the Game Day Division, which simulates cheering for a real-life game day; and the World High School Cheer Division, an international competition where Castle View has competed against teams hailing from as far away as China and Ecuador.
Castle View has gone to nationals eight out the sport's 12 years running at the school, Acampora said, and was a national finalist four of those times.
She called Douglas County one of the most competitive areas in the country for high school cheer and dance, which gives them good practice competing against high-level teams ahead of nationals.
Castle View's preparation for nationals truly begins with team tryouts in April. Once the varsity athletes are set, they start working on their routine in June and attend a master's camp where coaches from across the country instruct teams.
Their choreographer provides Castle View with a national-level routine right from the start, Acampora said. Learning that routine means practices four to five days a week in addition to covering the school's games and town events, plus weekly tumbling practice at a Parker gymnastics facility.
“So in other words, this team has no life outside of cheer,” Acampora said. “It's a big commitment.”
Campbell said she's been impressed the accountability and high standards coaches hold the cheerleaders to.
“The time that they're putting in, it's serious,” Campbell said. “You do not miss practice unless you're really injured or you're really sick.”
Heidi Petrauskas, Gracelyn's mother, said it's “virtually impossible” for the cheerleaders to hold down a job on top of cheer and school, but like Campbell, believes the team has a solid support system to help the cheerleaders handle the commitment.
“I think they have a really great team,” Petrauskas said. “They've very accepting. I don't know what you call it but they're kind of like a family.”
Campbell said she's gained a greater appreciation for cheer now that she has a child in the sport. She was an athlete too, she said, and Lucas plays baseball in addition to cheer, but there hasn't been any sporting event like the state tournament she witnessed Dec. 8 and 9, she said.
Campbell, her husband and one of her daughters will travel to Orlando to watch Lucas compete in nationals.
“We wouldn't miss it,” she said.
At nationals, some athletes are hoping to win a division. Some are just hoping to “hit” their routine. Regardless, Acampora said she's proud of the team's progress this season, and hopes the momentum continues at nationals.
“This is the biggest cheer championship,” Acampora said, “in the country.”
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