NEW CASTLE — Awaiting the final announcements on Saturday night from the stands, Greenfield-Central cheer coach Laken Peal mirrored her Cougars’ overwrought anticipation.
On the New Castle Chrysler Fieldhouse gym floor, a few feet away, her Varsity Coed crew sat huddled in a circle, arms locked and eyes closed. Peal clung to every word on the edge of her seat.
When Charlestown High School was awarded third in their division during the 2016 Indiana Cheer Championship State Finals, the Cougars and Peal breathed apprehensively.
Once New Palestine High School was named runner-up, their smiles washed away any lingering tension.
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“First place in the Varsity Coed Division is Greenfield-Central!” the public address announcer declared.
Peal leaped out of her seat. The team cried out in celebration as the Cougars’ vast crowd of supporters joined them with deafening cheers.
“I started crying. Happy tears,” Peal said. “We knew it was going to be between us and New Pal. It was between us at prelims. It was for our spots at (the Hoosier Heritage Conference), too. We cannot be more proud.”
Leading up to the team’s first Varsity Coed state title since 2005, the Cougars knew the stakes were high, especially with the New Palestine Dragons hot on their trail.
They had to be perfect, and on the state’s grandest stage, they brought their best.
“We flip-flopped a couple of times with them this year. We beat them the first time we met, and then they beat us at HHC, but we were on top at prelims, so they came in with nothing to lose,” Peal remarked. “We had that top spot to lose, so they knew they had to step it up and had to execute their routine. They did.”
Greenfield-Central took first in the preliminaries on Oct. 29 at Brownsburg High School with the top 60 percent of the teams advancing to the state finals. Their Varsity Coed state championship is the program’s first since winning in 2004 and claiming the Varsity Large title in 2005.
The fruits of their labor, however, were planted long before the Indiana Cheer Championship postseason began.
From two-a-days over the summer to football cheer season, tumbling classes outside of practice and team training six days a week, the Cougars put in the time.
“It’s a hard season,” Peal said. “It’s been over a decade since we won. Sometimes it doesn’t always circulate. Sometimes the same teams win it every year. It’s not like it just eventually happens. They had to work so hard.”
The last Hancock County team to win the Varsity Coed division was Mt. Vernon in 2014 and 2011. The Marauders also seized the Varsity Small championship in 2009.
This year, Mt. Vernon placed third in the Varsity B division behind second-place Pendleton Heights and state champion Fort Wayne Bishop Dwenger.
“We actually came out of prelims in fourth, so we were hoping to keep that spot or improve,” Mt. Vernon senior Madeline King said. “Last year, a girl got hurt the week of state, so we couldn’t even compete. To come back and win third was awesome.”
King added to the team’s highlight state appearance by being named ICA All-State along with Greenfield-Central’s Ava Dickmann and Kenzie Horning. The first Marauder to earn the recognition since Danielle Rogers in 2012, King was appreciative of the distinction.
“I was very nervous if I would even make it. I knew a lot of girls that I thought would make it and didn’t, so I was thrilled,” said King, who plans to attend Indiana University and major in Spanish and International Studies.
“I was very excited to compete with the other girls. It was a great way to end high school.”
For Dickmann and Horning, their all-state awards were historic. A year after Olivia McBride was named the first Greenfield-Central all-state cheerleader, the duo became the first tandem in the same season.
“It’s a really big honor because I’ve been cheering for seven years, and I’ve never thought being an all-state cheerleader would be something that I was capable of, but going out there and putting myself out there and earning the honor is a great accomplishment,” said Horning, who is heading to Purdue University next fall with aspirations of studying veterinarian medicine.
Dickmann and Horning were two of 12 individuals chosen for the all-state cheer team of 53 applicants from across the state. Each cheerleader was spotlighted at center mat before the awards ceremony.
“For me and Kenzie both to make it is very special because we’re best friends, and we’ve been through cheerleading together,” Dickmann said. “We’re the only ones that stuck through it all four years. Out of the 20 that ended up trying out freshman year, we’re the only ones that pushed through. It’s an honor for myself, for Kenzie and the school to be able to give back.”
Dickmann has been accepted into Indiana University and wants to major in biological science. Along with Horning and King, she hopes to continue her cheer career at the collegiate level, but if state proves to be her finale, she couldn’t think of a better ending.
“We did what we knew we could do,” Dickmann said. “It’s overwhelming and very humbling.”
It also was nerve-wracking. Competing more than three and a half hours before hearing their school’s name called over the loudspeakers, the Cougars performed immediately after the Dragons, which heightened the pressure.
“It was stressful. Coming in knowing you were first place is something you have to stay humble with. You can’t go in thinking you’re going to pull the exact same thing again because you don’t know,” Dickmann said. “It’s so rigorous and so important to focus on the details. Knowing they’re right on your heels is stressful, knowing we had to go out and pull off a perfect routine.”
While “there’s no such thing as a perfect routine,” Dickmann admits, a “wobbly” stunt near the end of their performance that the Cougars salvaged on the fly was the key.
The sea of blue in attendance to show their support throughout the grueling day helped them persevere as well, Peal said.
“We had a huge crowd this year, which we never have. I know that contributed,” the coach remarked. “We have never taken the mat with that many people cheering for us at one time.
“We had people from the football team, the coach (Adam Sherman), people from the band and parents who don’t even have people cheering. We’re so grateful. We’re on cloud nine right now.”
2016 Indiana Cheer Championship State Finals
1. Greenfield-Central, 2. New Palestine, 3. Charlestown.
1. Fort Wayne Bishop Dwenger, 2. Pendleton Heights, 3. Mt. Vernon.
Other champions: Timeout – North Central; Varsity D – Northeast Dubois; Varsity C – Tri-West; Varsity A – Noblesville.
2016 All-State Cheer Team
Kenzie Horning, Greenfield-Central; Ava Dickmann, Greenfield-Central; Madeline King, Mt. Vernon; Kenli Johnson, Hamilton Southeastern; Brooklyn Thomas, Avon; Amy Weilbaker, FW Bishop Dwenger; Dru Downen, Lowell; Raina Gulachek, FW Bishop Dwenger; Alyssa Baker, Fishers; Nic Carr, Elkhart Central; Jenna Daniel, Charlestown; Aubriel Davis, Pike.