By Brandon HENSLEY
For a moment, Christina Bircher may have been so overwhelmed at the magnitude of her new job that some wires in her mind might have crossed. Bircher, a former Falcon cheerleader, said she never realized how big the program was until she started coaching all 96 Crescenta Valley High School kids. The subject of that number came back up a minute later. Are there really 96 of them?
“Ninety-seven,” she said, catching herself on such a glaring mistake. “Sorry.”
And so every morning in the small gym and every week at football games, Bircher and her four assistant coaches come to work to instruct, encourage, and even discipline the ones whose job it is to get you excited at games, rallies and competitions.
With so many kids – CV is the largest cheer squad in the Pacific League – and only five coaches, it could seem daunting. Where’s the line in gaining the kids’ respect and not overdoing it so they rebel like the ants did against the ruthless grasshoppers in “A Bug’s Life”?
“Our heart is here. We want to make sure the kids get the best out of the program that they can,” said stunt coach Lexi Hemaiden.
It’s not just Hemaiden’s heart which CVHS occupies. Andrew Carbajal, Jianni Soto and Megan Allen make up the rest of the five coaches, and all of them are Falcon cheer alumni. Bircher, who cheered at Arizona State and who runs The Vault Dance Studio in Pasadena, was brought in this season as the head coach. Allen and Soto are also new, and together they’ve given parents and kids comfort that the program is in good hands.
Not everyone in the program was pleased with how former coach Jessie Moorehead ran things. Some said there was a feeling of malaise that came over each of the levels, resulting in laziness and poor routines.
Jordan Price, who began cheer as a freshman, didn’t return for her junior year. Now a senior, she’s back and enjoying every minute because, as she said, Bircher places an emphasis on building up every level – freshman, JV and varsity – to make everyone better.
“I’ve always wanted it to be like that, and that’s what Christina wants, too,” said Price, who is the varsity head cheerleader.
From the start, the coaches pushed the kids beyond what they knew they could do, or wanted to do. In the summer, Bircher had the teams run a mile. Price knew that would be tough, but said it was a good thing for Bircher to enact. Eventually, all members succeeded in the mile, and soon, thanks to more emphasis on conditioning, the team grew to admire the coaches’ new ways.
“Now they’re looking to us,” Bircher said of the kids. “Will they be able to build it back up to what it was?”
“We won’t take below average, at all. We push them to do their best. They know we expect that from them,” Hemaiden said.
This year, girls’ athletic director Peter Kim made the pep squad a part of the athletic program. Now there are different standards for cheer, and the coaches relish in preaching uniformity and being professional: put your hair up on game days, don’t make out with your boyfriend in public, and let’s all wear navy Spanx instead of whatever color you want because we’re a team, for crying out loud.
Parents can see the change in attitude and direction, and Price noted that cheer is holding more rallies at school than it did previously.
In the winter, competitions begin around Southern California, which is the real season for cheer. From 2003 to 2011, when the coaches were in the program, CV was a regular champion at the Sharp International San Diego West Coast competition
In Bircher’s freshman year, they earned an invite to Florida for the UCA National High School Cheerleading competition. Maybe that will be in the cards for this group.
“They brought back tradition. That’s one of things CV is known for,” Price said of the coaches. “It makes me so happy that this is the program it’s becoming. People are looking at us, and cheering for us, saying, ‘Hey, cheer’s really hard.’”
It’s not just about the ones in skirts with pom-poms. The two Falcon mascots, which are visible every week at football games, have enjoyed success at competitions as well. They claimed the championship at the USA Spirit Nationals mascot division in 2013, and were second in 2014.
Carbajal said emphasizing the mascots is a big deal to him and the coaches.
“In the past, mascots weren’t in the spotlight,” he said. “They weren’t taken seriously. Now we have kids that want to do it.”
So far, the coaches have heard what they were hoping to hear: the team is back. It’s just a matter of keeping it going. They realize kids need coaches they can trust, to make their time at CV as fun and fulfilling as it was when they were in that spot.
“We’ve all been there on the field loving every moment of it. And then watching them doing it, it’s awesome,” Bircher said.