WHITMAN — In the gymnasium in Whitman-Hanson Regional High, banners adorn the walls, celebrating the success of the school’s athletes. Four belong to the cheerleaders.
With 20 straight league titles, 11 state titles, and two national titles in their repertoire, the Whitman-Hanson cheerleading squad prides itself as the winningest team in that field in Massachusetts.
“I can’t imagine one that even comes close,” said athletic director Robert Rodgers.
It’s a status that senior Nicole Masone — who was only seven when the team she’d eventually join won its first league win back in 2007 — loves almost as much as competing itself.
“That two minutes and thirty seconds on the mat is just special to me,” she said.
Masone missed her team’s countrywide glory last January because she wanted to take a season to focus on school. In Dallas, Whitman-Hanson, fielding only 11 athletes, became nationwide titlists in the Senior & Junior High School National Championships. A police escort awaited them back in Massachusetts, and en route home, fans crowded the side of the road to cheer the victors back to school.
And yet, the 12 athletes and coach have been told that cheerleading isn’t a sport at all.
“Some people have a hard time believing that the sport has actually changed,” said head coach Tanisha King. “It’s not what it used to be when you didn’t have to tumble, flip your body around, and do these crazy stunts in two minutes.”
The so-called non-athletes are in the midst of their competition season, winning their league trial Nov. 5 with a score of 99.9 (out of 110) as they gear up for regionals Nov. 12 and states Nov. 19.
They begin practice each year in the last days of summer, right when all of the other fall sports are prepping too. But unlike soccer or field hockey, the cheerleaders’ season is placed on hold.
Throughout September and much of October, the squad hangs on the sidelines to cheer on the Whitman-Hanson football team, which journeyed to the postseason and past first-round opponent Barnstable, 30-20, Nov. 2.
“But it’s not just about cheering at games,” said King.
When the leaves turn brown on the ground and the football season closes, the cheerleaders leave the turf behind for the mat.
“Football has eight games,” said King, “and we have our eight competitions. That’s what they’re striving for.”
To uphold their legacy, the cheerleaders often train five days a week when sideline obligations or actual competitions don’t hold them up. Their conditioning incorporates running, lifting weights, and doing push-ups, snakes, tumble lines, and so on.
The plan that King has devised for her squad is uncompromising.
“Our routine is packed,” said King. “It’s always one thing after another, whereas I would say other teams move slower than Whitman-Hanson.”
A competition is broken down into three 25-point categories — stunting, dance, and pyramid — and one 35-point category — tumbling. In all four, Whitman-Hanson’s moves are tougher than most.
The first stunt the cheerleaders perform begins with a full and quarter up, a classic move in which a girl at the top — the flyer — spins in the air, raising both arms, seems to form a W. Then, the flyer balances on one foot, the other leg straight back — an arabesque. She raises that leg up into a heel stretch, and kick dismounts.
The squad’s toughest move is the inversion stunt, in which the athletes, held up by teammates, hoist a girl, upside down, and flip her so she’s rightside up on the top.
Stunts are generally chosen for a team to fit the team’s level of skill. If a team isn’t advanced enough for the stunt, it’ll likely fail, or worse yet, a cheerleader could be injured.
At the South Shore League Invitational Nov. 1 in Abington, a Whitman-Hanson pyramid attempted a basket toss and dropped the flyer. It was quite the fall, but she was uninjured.
“It’s hard,’’ said King, the coach, “because when you are successful and you know what your team should be scoring, you keep pushing them until you hit that score.”
Falling short is where the girls find their drive. Whitman-Hanson won five state titles in a row beginning in winter 2013, which no cheerleading team has ever done. But when it lost in fall 2016, it slipped to fifth place.
“It’s good to have competitions where they realize teams are working just as hard as them,’’ said the coach, “and they’re not going to have it handed to them every year.”
Despite their talents and legacy, junior captain Anna Franklin is worried that this fall will turn out like the last.
“I just want us to come together as team,” she said. “We got fifth [last fall] because we weren’t. I don’t want that to happen again.”
Both coach and athletes acknowledge that the Bridgewater-Raynham and Dracut teams, which fought against them in Dallas last winter, are creeping closer to stealing Whitman-Hanson’s crown. They know what they need to do to keep it.
“We used to be up there,” said Masone. “We still have to work for it.”Katherine Fominykh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @katfominykh.