Fielding the largest team of her coaching career this season, Powell High School cheer coach Vicki Walsh had an inkling this team could accomplish great things.
But as the team hit the road to the Casper Events Center for last week’s State Spirit Competition, the point Walsh really wanted to impart on her cheerleaders above all else was to make the most of the experience.
“Our goal is to go there, have fun, do our best and know that we went out there and gave it our all,” she said.
But if you can win a state title in the process, well, that could be a lot of fun, too.
The Lady Panthers did just that, finishing first out of 10 teams in the Game Day Cheer category, the first team to win the brand-new event. The team also placed fifth in the All Girl Cheer — better known as the stunts category — while Walsh was named co-coach of the Year.
“It was amazing; the girls performed very, very well,” Walsh said. “They performed their routine the best I’ve ever seen them do it, and it felt really good when they got off the floor.”
In Game Day Cheer, the Lady Panthers scored 86.25 points to take the top spot, with Mountain View second with 84.45 and Lyman third with 83.45.
Powell scored 72.6 points to take fifth in All-Girl Cheer. Mountain View was first with 85.2 points, Cokeville second with 75.0, Rocky Mountain third with 74.7 and Cody finished fourth, scoring 73.55 points.
“The stunt part of it is very competitive, and the two teams that got first and second, I placed them right where they finished,” Walsh said. “I thought maybe we would be third or fourth, but we were close. ... It’s subjective, it’s what the judges like, but I was thrilled at how they performed.”
Powell was situated in the middle of the pack in terms of when they were scheduled to perform in Game Day Cheer, so Walsh was unable to gauge how other teams were faring. But when the Lady Panthers finished their routine, Walsh was confident she had just witnessed something special.
“... I tried not to say a whole lot to them, but inside, I was like, ‘Wow, that was really good,’” she explained. “I felt like maybe we had done well, but you never can tell when you’re sitting there waiting to hear results.”
Walsh admitted to a little trepidation as the announcer ran down the results, reaching the final three teams with Powell’s name yet to be called. When the Lady Panthers were announced in the top spot, it was the best kind of bedlam.
“It was excruciating when you’re sitting there, and they call fourth, and they call third, and you still haven’t heard your name, and you’re just like, ‘I hope, I hope, I hope,’” Walsh said. “It was so exciting, the girls were so excited. I don’t really know if they thought that was going to happen this year.”
This is the first state championship for Lady Panther cheer since 2010, when they won the All Girl Cheer (stunts) competition. As the first-ever team to win the Game Day Cheer competition, Walsh said it hadn’t even occurred to her until the bus ride back that Powell had made history.
“Mr. Kuhn, our principal, met us at the school and got on the bus to congratulate us,” she said. “He said that to the girls [being the first to win], and I was like, ‘Yeah, it never dawned on me that that really just happened.’”
The PHS squad celebrated their accomplishment that night with a trip to Pizza Ranch in Casper, which stayed open late to cater to the cheer teams.
“We walked in the door, and that [the state title] was the first thing the girls told the manager, and he was so excited for them. He even gave them free game cards for the game room they had in the back to go back and play games,” Walsh said. “For them, it’s a big deal, and they had a blast.”
The cheerleaders weren’t done, either: They went on to help cheer on the Panther and Lady Panther basketball teams on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
“... just the whole atmosphere and to be able to be a part of that is special,” Walsh said.
The coach added that, while some might think that a state title in cheer doesn’t carry the weight of winning in football or wrestling, the kids work just as hard, putting in time and effort from the very beginning of the school year.
“We start in August, and we’re done in March,” she said. “They put in a lot of practices, a lot of games, a lot of blood, sweat and tears. It’s a big deal to them.”
The Powell community made sure they showed their appreciation, as a contingent of fans met in Ralston to welcome the team back home Saturday night, complete with an escort by the Powell Fire Department back into Powell.
“When we won and we kind of calmed down and were sitting down in a circle, one of my seniors, McKennah Buck said, ‘Oh my gosh, we get to have the fire trucks! I can’t wait for the fire trucks!’” Walsh said, laughing. “The girls were so in awe of that, especially my younger girls. They were like, ‘I can’t believe all these people are here and I can’t believe the fire trucks are here.’ It was just such a big deal for them; it was a really special time for them.”
This year’s squad featured six seniors: McKennah Buck, Sarah Rodriguez, Gracie McLain, Gabri Lundberg, Alyssa Gould and McKenzie Thompson. Walsh said the group was thrilled to end their careers at the top.
“They were pretty excited, especially the two girls who had been on the team for four years,” she said. “They thought it was just the best way to end their senior year.”
As for winning co-coach of the year, Walsh said it was an incredible honor to receive that level of recognition.
“There are so many wonderful cheer coaches around the state and to be part of such an amazing group is so humbling,” she said. Walsh thanked her assistant coach Cindy Jacobs, saying that “I could not do this without her.”
“I also want to thank all my cheer girls for all their hard work and dedication,” Walsh said. “None of this would be possible without them.”