Cheer champs: Woodbury brings home a national title in competitive cheerleading
WOODBURY — V-I-C-T-O-R-Y. That's Woodbury's battle cry.
Since tryouts started in April, the Woodbury competition cheerleading team could tell there was something that could set this group apart from previous years.
"We started training really hard right off the bat in the spring," said ninth-grader Katie Johnston. "Throughout the summer, I could see how the team was coming along."
Nearly a year in the making, Woodbury competed in the 2018 UCA National High School Cheerleading Championship in Orlando, Florida, and captured the team's first national championship in the Small Varsity Non Tumbling Game Day division on Feb. 11.
"Just as a coach and someone who cheered before, it's something I wanted for 20 years," said competition head coach Andria Mattlin. "To experience it as a coach as opposed to a participant, it was so much more rewarding. My own dreams were coming true and then I got to see 12 other kids that I coached for two or three years see their dreams coming true at the same time. It was really unbelievable."
And Woodbury was able to reach national success with an extremely young roster. Gwenny Hanson, the oldest member of the team, is a high-school sophomore.
"Half of us were returners," Hanson said of being the elder statesman. "It was easier but harder at the same time to be competing."
Then, there was a newcomer like ninth-grader Paige Kibwana, who needed to build her confidence as much as she needed to learn the routine. Luckily, the Woodbury team picked her up.
"When we first learned the first part of our routine, I was really scared," Kibwana said. "I remember another one of my teammates pulled me aside and told me that I can do it. It was just really encouraging with everyone on the team stepping up and being big sisters, even though most of them are my age."
When competition finally rolled around in October, Woodbury was dominant, taking first place in small varsity non-tumbling at the East Ridge Extreme Cheer Challenge, UCA 10,000 Lakes Regional, Bloomington Jefferson Cheer Jam, Prior Lake Cheer Shop, U of M Cheer Championship, Minnetonka Freeze, Maple Grove Cheer Challenge and the state competition. They also took first place in the game day division at the Twin Cities Open.
"We were undefeated as a team. When we kept continuously winning, it really opened my eyes to how much we've accomplished and how much our work paid off through the year," said ninth-grader Zoe Bushard.
With the win at regionals, Woodbury earned its spot at the national championship and had three months to fine-tune its routine.
"We tweak everything between each competition to keep bettering them so they're not getting bored with the routine in the six months they're competing with it," Mattlin said.
"Our pyramid changed. For game day, our cheer changed," Bushard said.
"We also added flags and megaphones for game day," Kibwana said.
And with the success they saw back in October, the young Woodbury squad was rather composed.
"We were all really excited more than we were scared," Johnston said. "We were all pretty confident in the routine, so it was about pushing through and keeping our eye on the prize."
In the semifinals, Woodbury finished in a tie for first. The team was good enough to be in the championship discussion, but Mattlin figured there was more there to make them undisputed champions.
"I told them, 'What 10 percent more can you give in the finals that's going to set you apart from the other team,'" Mattlin said. "And you could see the difference between their semifinal round and final round. I just had a feeling when we were waiting for awards that it was going to happen for them this year."
Hanson added, "We had to show how much we wanted it."
The announcement came over the speakers: Woodbury won the national championship, with the Baylor School (Tennessee) and Mendham High School (New Jersey) finishing second and third, respectively.
"I kind of don't remember it," Kibwana said with a laugh. "I remember walking off the stage but I don't remember the actual moment when it happened."
Mattlin added, "Especially for a young team, it's cool to see that you can be young and still do really well as long as you're committed and passionate about something. That teaches them a lot for the rest of their lives."