"Red, blue and white! We're ready to fight! We're second ... to none! The Tigers are number one!"
For many, chants such as these bring to mind an iconic image: The sun has set on a late summer evening, and those fabled Friday night lights flash on. Young men in hulking shoulder pads and helmets huddle on the sidelines. Spectators fill the stands -- and pompom-wielding cheerleaders in matching uniforms lead the frenzy as the crowd cheers the team on to victory.
But before they are heard amid the electric atmosphere of a game, these cheers are practiced over and over during summer camps and in high school gyms. Sweat pours down the faces of the cheerleaders as the squad, made up mostly of girls, listen to the coach's demand, delivered almost as a mantra: "Do it again."
That was the scene at a recent summer training session for the McKeesport Area High School cheer and dance team -- a scene repeated over and over at nearly every suburban high school.
While most public high schools have a cheer program of some kind, the form it takes varies. Cheer squads can be varsity programs, which compete through one or more of the local and national organizations that sponsor cheerleading tournaments, or they can be a student activity -- cheering noncompetitively on the sidelines of varsity athletics matches. Many times, the squads do both.
The McKeesport Area team has 35 members who are split between varsity and junior varsity squads. Although they have participated in competitive cheerleading, the girls are planning on a noncompetitive season this year, cheering only for the school's football and basketball teams.
Still, they take the cheering seriously. After tryouts -- 104 girls tried out for the 35 spots -- the team raised funds and practiced all summer to get ready for the season.
The team performs about three dozen cheers and chants during a single game, according to coach Stefanie Burgh, 30. Some involve complex tumbling and stunts, with cheerleaders hoisted or tossed into the air, as well as five to 10 coordinated dance routines. In a sport where synchrony is everything, the team drills the moves repeatedly until they are able to perform them flawlessly as a unit.
Although the McKeesport Area Tigers start their football season Friday at Hempfield Area, the date everyone is especially waiting for is the following week, Sept. 6, when McKeesport Area has its home opener against Woodland Hills.
"Athletics in McKeesport Area is something that brings all of our communities together," another cheering coach, Kristen Giran, 27, said. "It's exciting, the feeling of a Friday night football game is unparalleled."
Cheerleading has grown as a sport over the past couple of decades. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, there are nearly 400,000 high school cheerleaders in the United States.
As cheerleading has increased in popularity, it has become a more serious and demanding activity, largely due to the rise of private "all-star" teams that offer participants the chance to cheer on a more competitive level.
"What you see nowadays -- at a cheerleading competition or even at games -- is more advanced stunting and tumbling, compared to basic cheerleading: simple stunts, very little tumbling," Mrs. Burgh said.
With the changes come concerns about the safety of the sport.
According to a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, conducted between 1982 and 2009, some 65 percent of "direct catastrophic injuries" to female athletes -- which include skull fractures and cervical spine injuries resulting in permanent brain injury, paralysis or death -- were suffered by cheerleaders.
Courtenay Carrel, 34, of Mars, head coach of North Allegheny Senior High School's varsity cheer squad, thinks the risk of injury is exaggerated.
"By number, [injuries] might be high," she said. "But there's such a large number of athletes, that the percentage is among the lowest for female sports."
She said it all comes down to regulation.
"I think that if coaches are properly trained and the teams follow proper safety progression, it can be one of the safest sports."
While high school cheer squads have for decades had the opportunity to compete through any number of organizations -- Universal Cheerleaders Association, AmeriCheer and JAMfest are just a few that have national competitions -- recognition of the sport has lagged behind in Pennsylvania. It wasn't until last season that the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association incorporated "Competitive Spirit" as an official varsity sport.
Working closely with the Universal Cheerleaders Association, the PIAA spent about two years researching the sport, said Melissa Mertz, PIAA associate executive director and competitive spirit tournament director.
"We never realized how much participation was actually taking place and we weren't involved," Ms. Mertz said. "We thought, 'Wow, we're really missing out on an opportunity to have a championship to highlight more female athletes, to give them an opportunity to showcase their skills.' "
North Allegheny's varsity cheer squad was one of 95 teams to participate in the first PIAA Competitive Spirit Championships in February in Hershey.
At the tournament, cheer teams competed in a series of group rounds, 21/2-minute routines that incorporate tumbling and stunting activities as well as more conventional cheers.
After finishing fourth in its category during the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League qualifying competition,
North Allegheny's performance at the PIAA state tournament earned the squad second place in the Medium Varsity section.
"Our experience at the PIAA was one of our best experiences of all of last year," Mrs. Carrel said. "It was just more legitimate for them: to be able to compete -- like the football or the basketball team -- for a state title."
North Allegheny, which has 108 cheerleaders divided among six teams, also has competed in the UCA National Tournament for the past seven years, making it to the finals five of those times.
"Once you get to nationals, it's really the cream of the crop," Mrs. Carrel said. "Any given day, a different team could potentially win the championship. So, it's very competitive."
Traveling to national competitions, however, is a luxury only some can afford. Mrs. Carrel estimated that, including travel to nationals, the all-season cost for a member of the varsity squad is $1,500 to $2,000, although that price tag is reduced by the team's booster club through fundraising and by the district, which pays for bus travel and uniforms.
Booster clubs are a typical way for teams to help defray cheerleading costs, of which school districts typically pay only a portion. Based on estimates by coaches at a number of schools around the area, a cheerleader who is new to the sport and needs to purchase a full set of gear can pay from about $250 to more than $500. Costs are lower for returning students, who can reuse much of their equipment.
Despite costs, coaches are quick to stress the personal benefits of cheerleading.
Rachel Geis, 24, of Carnegie is the coach of Carlynton Junior-Senior High School's varsity team.
Carlynton is a small district, with 660 students in grades 7-12, and it doesn't have a competitive program. Mrs. Geis said that, even though the team doesn't compete, the girls put a lot of work into the sport and they get quite a bit out of it in return, particularly in terms of self-confidence.
"It's incredible how quiet and shy they are as freshmen, but by the time they're seniors ... they are no longer shy to speak in front of a crowd or introduce themselves to a stranger," she said.
Giannia Kustra, 16, of McKeesport, a junior on McKeesport Area's varsity squad, agreed. "I've definitely become more outgoing."
In the Bethel Park program, cheerleading is also about service. Bethel Park's 65-member team has, over the past two years, developed a close relationship with Special Olympics of Allegheny County.
Toward the end of their season, the team members cheer at Special Olympics events, such as bowling tournaments. They also host a fashion show every March, in which both cheerleaders and Special Olympics athletes participate. The fundraiser typically brings in about $10,000 for Special Olympics of Allegheny County.
"We're trying to teach them that, yes, they're getting a lot out of this. They're getting good and going to competitions and going to camps in the summertime, but we want them to be leaders in the community," head coach Andreana Radomski, 28, of Peters said. "That should be really what cheerleading is all about: raising the spirit in the community."
Brenna Erzen, 17, of Bethel Park, who will be a senior this school year, said that working with Special Olympics has been a highlight of her cheer experience.
"Just seeing how happy the athletes are when we're cheering them on, it's just so fulfilling," she said.
Lee Purvey: firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published August 29, 2013 4:00 AM