Back for
year four
A high school cheerleading team’s run for a fourth national title

Coach Christie Tyson rises from her seat, steps to the front of the tour bus and takes hold of the microphone. Her girls are seated in front of her, finally ready to put their show on display after countless of hours of preparation.

This is the day of nationals, the biggest day of the year for the Highland Springs High School cheerleading team - nicknamed Blackout. Tyson clutches the microphone in both hands and closes her eyes.

“Today is the day,” she says. “We’ve made it this far. We pray, Lord God, that every cry, every frustration, every tear, every bruise, everything that’s happened to us this competition season will be all worth it. And we thank you in advance for our victory. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.”

As the bus eases itself out of its parking spot, the girls begin to sing and chant, with junior Jadon Gallagher leading. They arrive 45 minutes later at the Stomp-n-Shake national championship at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, N.C. From the moment they step off the bus, they are in character, strutting into the building in step with each another. They quietly chant: “Blackout … Watch out … We’re coming through … You better move.”

Other groups turn their attention to the Highland Springs team, which has won three consecutive national titles. It's March 16, and they’ve returned in hopes of claiming No. 4.

A thousand or so cheerleaders, coaches and spectators are scattered throughout the arena.

Now the Springers are waiting with a handful of other teams inside a cramped hallway that leads to the performance floor. The other teams are dressed in all sorts of colors and accessories – sunglasses on one, camouflage tops on another.

A team finishes its performance and enters the hallway, where one of its members sits down on the floor and begins to cry. Some of the Springers are nervous, others excited. Mariah Lewis, the team’s top tumbler, stands quietly with her arms crossed. But Jadon is jumping and dancing.

“I gotta let it out,” Jadon says.

There’s time for one final prayer, so the team circles together. A college group standing nearby extends its hands and finger tips to give its blessing. The Springers take two big breaths. In … out. In … out.

“Y’all got this,” Tyson tells them. “Y’all got this.”

After waiting all day, after hundreds of hours of practice throughout the winter, after 7 a.m. meetings and laps run up and down the school’s hallways, the time has finally come.

Highland Springs varsity captain Taylor Richardson teaches the team a cheer during a practice at the school on Saturday Dec. 22, 2018.

Let’s get it started

Inside the auxiliary gymnasium at Highland Springs High School, in the middle of a three-hour weeknight practice earlier this year, the 20 girls stand in three lines in the set position – feet together, hands in a fist on their hips, a smile on their face if they can force it.

The wrestling team, with whom they share the gym, went home an hour ago. The cheerleaders have another hour to go.

One of the coaches shouts the cue to begin: “5, 6, 7, 8” and suddenly the deep, guttural voices of the girls fill the gymnasium with sound. Hands slap one another, white tennis shoes pound the cushioned mat. Knees are lifted up, toes pointed out, hands clenched in fists above their head. They call:

Let’s get it started

H. S. H. S. We are the best.

But just a few seconds later, the routine has fallen apart. The words and the motions aren’t in sync. Practice has been a struggle tonight. For the past hour, the girls have recited the first 12 beats of its performance for nationals.

And each time, something goes wrong. The coaches have had enough, so they tell the girls to run two laps down the school’s hallways.

“Y’all don’t want to be here. It don’t seem like it,” says Christian Roberson, one of the team’s four coaches. “It really don’t.”

Six weeks remain to learn and perfect the routine. With every missed motion, every word spoken out of rhythm, every start and stop, the girls and coaches feel the pressure of winning a fourth straight title.

One of the coaches counts off, and the girls begin the routine again. It’s sharper this time, and they perform all 12 beats without stopping. But one girl’s foot is slightly askew. The coaches make the correction.

It’s through this extreme attention to detail, the endless repetition, the desire for perfection, the three-hour weeknight practices followed by eight-hour Saturday ones - this is how three straight national championships are achieved.

Randi Onley, another assistant, turns to the other coaches, a frustrated look on her face.

“They’re going to get it right,” she says firmly. She turns her attention back to the girls and instructs them to start over. She counts again, “5, 6, 7, 8.”

The coaches

When it comes to cheerleading, head coach Christie Tyson has been a perfectionist all her life. She grew up in South Richmond and attended George Wythe High School. A cheerleader ahead of her time, she made the varsity as a freshman, and by the end of football season, she was calling cheers. By her sophomore year, she was a captain.

She never wanted to be seen as a know-it-all, so she would stand in the back row while practicing routines, but the coach would pull her to the front. While other cheerleaders tolerated sloppy or uneven performances, she simply couldn’t. She wasn’t wired that way.

The Highland Springs cheer team practices on Tuesday Nov. 20, 2018.

Chasing perfection is the only way she knows how to coach. That’s what pushes her to drive from her job as a lab tech in South Richmond 30 minutes to Highland Springs several days a week every month of the year. When she returns home in Chesterfield, it’s usually 9 p.m., and it’s been 14 hours since she left that morning.

These days, when the national competition is looming, she makes the drive to Highland Springs six days a week. When she’s away, the assistants direct practice. Two of them are Highland Springs alumnae. Another they met through a mutual friend and coach. And all of them are as detail oriented as Tyson.

Each one has an expertise: Tyson knows dance; Onley is the expert in writing the words of the cheers; Roberson is best with the moves of the cheer; and Krysten Crudup is in charge of stunts – the act of throwing or lifting a cheerleader in the air.

“We mesh so well as a coaching staff,” Crudup said.

Their mastery of their craft has led them to three national titles and renown in the cheer community. More than 100 girls attended tryouts for a team that now includes 20 girls. Blackout’s Instagram account has more than 34,000 followers.

But their endeavor for perfection has pushed the coaches to their limit. The workload increased from two competitions last year to five this year, each with its own routine, with Stomp-n-Shake the last major event on the schedule. Now the coaches feel less prepared than ever for nationals. Three-hour practices are being stretched to five. The feeling of burnout is creeping into them.

The coaches talk frequently about retiring. Tyson is 30 years old, the assistants are in their early 20s, and they’re all ready to have their Friday nights back. None of them is in a relationship, and Onley jokes that her personal life is cheerleading.

Highland Springs head cheer coach Christie Tyson talks with the team during practice on Thursday Jan. 17, 2019.

So it was resolved early on in this competition season that no matter what happens at nationals in Year 4, there will be no Year 5. The work required takes too large a toll. It’s been a good run, Tyson said, it’s time for a break.

The one factor that pulls at them the hardest is the desire to preserve what they’ve built. Tyson doesn’t want to hand off the program to a coach unprepared to keep the team competing at a high level. If there were a suitable replacement ready, the coaches would retire now. Instead, Tyson hopes to train a replacement next year.

It’s not until after the season ends that all four coaches pledge to return for one more year.

“Cheerleading has consumed my entire life,” Roberson said. “I want to be done with it. I do, but I don’t.”

The rivalry

The cheerleading team’s trophy case is located in the school’s main hallway, and it’s nearly full. There are five alcoves guarded by glass doors, and the one all the way to the right belongs to them. Twelve trophies and two plaques, all won in the past four years, fill the space.

Last year’s Stomp-n-Shake national championship trophy was so tall, it wouldn’t fit in the trophy case. It stands more than 5 feet high and lives in the school’s main office.

Cheerleader Sydni DeBerry (center) cheers during the Highland Springs football game against Lee-Davis on Friday Sept. 21, 2018.

There’s not much room in the case for more trophies, but the team won two more this weekend, so Tyson will try to squeeze them in. She lifts the 3-foot glistening silver tower into the case and pushes it into the back right corner. The light reflects off its surface into a thousand little rainbows. Adorning the top is a golden cheerleader suspended in midair.

With this trophy came controversy. Three days earlier, a different team had hoisted it and posed with it for photos.

The winners were announced at the U-Fit competition in Charlotte the previous weekend, and another team, Xclusive Cheer, was named the overall champ. Highland Springs placed third. But when the Highland Springs coaches were given their score sheets, something was missing. One judge awarded them just 55 points, 30 points less than all the other judges had given them. Two categories on the score sheet had been left blank.

Realizing there were errors in the score tabulation, the event organizers collected the trophies and score sheets. They recounted and discovered errors for multiple schools. When new totals were calculated, Highland Springs’ score had jumped 40 points, putting it 2½ points ahead of Xclusive.

Cheerleaders from other teams weren’t satisfied with the outcome. One girl took to social media to label the competition sabotaged and dubbed Xclusive the real winner. Highland Springs posted a response to its Instagram page:

“We had no control over the outcomes nor would we ever try to cheat or take anything from anyone. We pride our program on building positive connections with other teams and organizations.”

Some teams are gunning for Highland Springs, looking to knock Blackout from its perch. Others respect the Springers as a benchmark. If we can compete at their level, we know we’re doing well.

“There are so many teams that want to beat us,” Tyson said. “Some teams don’t like us.”

Stomp-n-Shake

Watch traditional cheerleading on ESPN and you’ll see a good deal of stunting. You’ll see running and flipping, which is referred to as tumbling. Those elements are included in Highland Springs’ routine, but they aren’t the driving force.

Because this performance is in the style of Stomp-n-Shake, the voices, the clapping, the hips bouncing from side to side, the feet slamming against the floor, these are the most prominent elements.

Another difference is the sound. Stomp-n-Shake cheerleaders yell lower and louder, pushing with their diaphragms, aiming to project their cheers to the edges of the room.

Highland Springs cheerleader Angel White (right) talks with varsity co-captain Aniyah Winston before the Highland Springs football game against Lee-Davis on Friday Sept. 21, 2018.

Some credit Virginia State University’s first cheer coach, Paulette Walker Johnson, for inventing the style in the 1970s. She got the job in 1974 and inherited a cheer team that was short on traditional cheerleading talent. But the girls had rhythm, and they knew how to dance. So she created cheers and routines that her girls could perform.

“I took what I had,” she said.

To her, building a human pyramid wasn’t exciting anyway. Throw a girl in the air, and the audience is pleased for 5 seconds. Bring the heat for a 30-second dance, and the audience will be enthralled from start to finish.

Johnson taught her style at cheer camps, and high schools and historically black colleges and universities started to emulate it. Coaches preferred it because they didn’t need cheerleaders who could perform cartwheels or back flips. Anyone could be taught to stomp and shake.

HBCUs across the South adopted Johnson’s cheers. She would attend events and watch teams perform routines she had once taught. It wasn’t until years later that the style was branded as Stomp-n-Shake.

In recent years, it has proliferated in Virginia and North Carolina. A team from as far as California will attend this year’s Stomp-n-Shake national championship.

To Roberson, one of the Highland Springs assistants, Stomp-n-Shake is point of African American pride. HBCUs were created because black students couldn’t attend segregated white colleges, and it was there that the style originated.

“Our culture was able to cultivate something amazing,” she said. “African American girls can be proud to say this is something we created.”

When Stomp-n-Shake cheerleaders attend a game, they can simultaneously cheer on the team and entertain the crowd. When performed well, Stomp-n-Shake shows wow the crowd. A battle between two cheerleading teams at a basketball game can surpass the excitement of the game itself.

Rhythm and bravado are major components. When the Blackout team enters a gymnasium, they quietly chant, “Watch out, you better move.”

The girls

It takes two school buses and 35 minutes for junior Sydni DeBerry to arrive at Highland Springs High School each morning by 8:20 a.m. She lives in the Glen Allen district on the other side of Henrico County, and travels alongside students enrolled in Highland Springs’ engineering program, its Advanced College Academy and International Baccalaureate. She’s the only one on the bus who comes for its cheerleading team.

Highland Springs cheerleader Sydni DeBerry cheers during the Highland Springs basketball game against Varina on Friday Jan. 18, 2019.

Before her ninth-grade year, DeBerry requested a variance to attend Highland Springs, and the cheerleading team was the biggest reason why.

“I wanted to meet new people,” she said. “I wanted to start something different.”

When she first arrived at her new school, she had no friends. Now she has “cheer sisters,” whom she sees six days a week. During competition season, free time is at a minimum.

“Their social life is nonexistent,” Tyson said.

Expectations for the girls are laid out before the season begins. They sign a five-page contract acknowledging the extensive time commitment. The season lasts 12 months a year, beginning and ending in the spring. Playing another sport isn’t an option. They agree not to get tattoos or piercings and they consent to eliminating soda from their diets.

Sometimes it means sacrificing your body. A year ago, the team was practicing stunts, and DeBerry was part of the base. The flier at the time was new and was instructed to twist in midair. When she landed, her elbow crashed into DeBerry’s eye. At first, the coaches didn’t believe DeBerry was injured.

“I could feel that it was starting to turn purple,” she said.

It was the week of homecoming, and attending the dance with a black eye wasn’t an option. She covered it with concealer and successfully hid the purple marks on her face.

But maybe the greatest pain she felt was not getting to cheer at all. Last spring, DeBerry got in trouble at home, and her parents pulled her off the team – two weeks before nationals. She went home and cried that night.

“I was so hurt,” she said.

After the Springers had won title No. 3, DeBerry watched the routine on video. She felt conflicted, feeling joy for her teammates’ success but devastation for not being part of it.

When junior year came, she decided she wouldn’t let another national tournament go into jeopardy. She was the first to turn in her cheer pack – all the forms and teacher recommendations necessary for trying out. The coaches say she’s more disciplined than ever before.

“It’s my redemption year,” she said.

This year’s team consists of 19 cheerleaders, all girls – there have been boys in the past, but there are none this year. Among the names on the roster are two seniors, four fliers and nine “Ayas”: Aniyah, Sariyah, Jeniyah, Nya, Damya, Amiya, Anaya, DaShiya and Mariah.

Mariah is the team’s best gymnast – halfway through the show she sprints diagonally across the floor, flipping herself into two back handsprings and a back tuck, landing cleanly on her feet.

When the girls are off the mat, they love to joke and laugh and yell. Their noise level, which is high on the mat, is at elevated decibels off the mat, too. They sing songs together, doing their best Cardi B or Chris Brown imitations. They FaceTime with their boyfriends – one girl estimated that 90 percent of the cheerleaders have boyfriends. FaceTime is the preferred means of communication, replacing the traditional phone call.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: Highland Springs cheerleaders take pictures before the BTW cheer competition in Norfolk, Va. at Booker T. Washington High School on Saturday Jan. 26, 2019. Highland Springs cheerleaders Sariyah Briggs (left) and Sydni DeBerry vlog before the BTW cheer competition. Highland Springs cheerleader Sariyah Briggs (left) has her hair done by varsity captain Taylor Richardson. The team went on to win the competition with their 90s themed routine.

An inordinate amount of time is spent on their phones. They use them to post videos of themselves to YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat. They post vlogs – video blogs – of their lives attending basketball games and preparing their outfits for practice.

Highland Springs loves its cheerleaders, but resources to support the team are lacking. The team raises money with car washes and at concession stands at games. In one long day, they have raised $2,000. Taylor Richardson, a senior captain on the team, wishes the team got more respect. Whenever the school needs the cheerleaders, Richardson said, they’re there, performing whenever they are asked. Now, she says, the team needs the school.

“It’s hard to be a cheerleader,” Richardson says.

Preparation for nationals

There are two days left before nationals now, and in 15 hours, the Springers will board a tour bus bound for North Carolina, where they will compete in the final competition of the year. This is the last night they will practice in their own gymnasium, so this run through has been dubbed a dress rehearsal.

The girls dress in their competition uniforms – black skirts and black long-sleeve tops with gold and white trim, the letters HS in white block letters on the chest. The girls stand off the side of the mat, and Tyson imitates the introduction they’ll receive on the day of the competition.

Highland Springs cheerleader Georgio Haskins works on a stunt during practice on Thursday Jan. 17, 2019.

“For the fourth time coming back to the mat, going for a possible fourth grand championship … coming here since no one knew who Highland Springs was, but look at them now. I want to introduce, at this time, the Highland --” but she can’t keep a straight face and she begins to laugh at her drawn-out introduction. Before she can finish, the girls have taken the floor.

The music is switched on from Onley’s phone and blasted through a wireless speaker set on the floor. The lyrics start: “Are you ready? Is you ready? You say you’re ready?”

And in an instant the fliers have been lifted into the air and shot toward the sky. But after several seconds, it’s clear the synchronicity isn’t there. The routine is coming unglued.

The music stops, and Tyson asks, “Y’all want to start over?”

The girls answers in unison, “Yes.”

They begin again, but Junior flier Treasure Bailey is dropped. Another girl falls on a flip. When the routine is finished, the girls fall to the mat, breathing hard, their chests heaving. The assistant coaches are all yelling now, pointing out each shortcoming. Never one to take a combative tone, Tyson offers her assessment in a calm, level voice.

“I feel like y’all retracting,” she says. “That’s not a good sign.”

“The stunts,” Onley adds, “I’m scared.”

“Y’all have to know in your mind it’s not going to fall,” Tyson says.

The team ends practice knowing the quality of their routine is short of expectations. They’re supposed to board the bus at 11 a.m. Friday, so they’ve scheduled an extra practice for 7 a.m. to put in more work.

They circle up, hold hands, and Tyson leads a prayer asking for the routine to work in a way it hasn’t yet.

“We thank you for allowing us to compete in this national competition for the fourth time,” she says. “I pray, Lord God, that you give us the strength tonight to come to practice in the morning and kill it like we’ve never done it before."

The day before nationals begins with an early-morning practice and includes a four-hour drive to Winston-Salem, N.C. There, the team checks into its hotel, visits a trampoline park for recreation and holds another short practice.

Seventeen hours after the day began, the girls are still bounding with energy, laughing and swatting one another with pillows. A mass text arrives from the coaches – noise complaints have been made by other guests in the hotel. If the team is kicked out, the message states, you will sleep on the bus.

Inside room 422 of the hotel, four cheerleaders are glued to their phones, texting and FaceTiming, making use of every last minute. At midnight, the coaches will knock on the door and confiscate their phones in an effort to remove distraction and encourage sleep.

“This is so depressing,” says Aniyah Winston, a senior co-captain. “I’m going to miss my phone.”

The knock on the door comes, and the four coaches are standing on the other side to collect the phones and place them in a large leather purse.

“Be blessed,” Tyson says as she walks out the door.

Though they are without their phones, the girls aren’t close to sleep. They still need to curl their hair – curly hair is essential for Stomp-n-Shake – and pin it to their heads. It’s not until 4 a.m. that all of them are asleep, but even then their heads are poked by bobby pins.

When they awake, the day they’ve all been waiting for will have arrived.

The final performance

Highland Springs cheer varsity co-captain Aniyah Winston (center) competes during the 2019 National Stomp-n-Shake Championships on Saturday March 16, 2019.

When the announcer calls their name, the Highland Springs cheerleaders enter the competition floor from stage right, their hands in the air, their hands clapping. There’s a momentary silence before the sound of a fast-paced electric guitar comes through the speakers. In an instant, three girls are shot into the air in sync.

The first cheer is barked out:

Let’s get it started

H.S.H.S. we are the best

No doubt we turn it out

Back for year four

That’s right

You can’t deny that Springer pride

As we rock this floor

The words are clear, and the motions are sharp. After so many failed repetitions, the girls get it right. Mariah sprints across the floor, flipping upside down into a back handspring, another back handspring and a back tuck. She lands it perfectly. Treasure is lifted in the air and tossed from one set of girls to another. They catch her on her stomach, another move successfully completed.

The final song begins, and the girls are exploding with energy. They bounce from side to side, up and down, elbows out, hands up, finger tips extended. Their hair flies back and forth, landing on their faces.

The show ends with the girls holding a majestic pose, Georgio Haskins lifted in the air, her hand beside her head as if she’s adjusting a crown. Other girls extend their hands, palms down, as if to show off a diamond ring. The music ends, and the only sound that remains is the whoop of the crowd.

Exiting the floor, they return to the hallway and immediately start replaying the show in their heads. It wasn’t perfect, but it was very good. The coaches know the routine inside and out, so they see mistakes the judges may not. A former captain, Destiny Page, watched the performance, and they ask her how they did.

“It was good,” she says. “It was really good.”

LEFT: Highland Springs varsity captain Taylor Richardson and co-captain Aniyah Winston hold hands before the winner of the 2019 National Stomp-n-Shake Championships are announced on Saturday March 16, 2019.

RIGHT: Highland Springs cheerleader Sariyah Briggs competes during the 2019 National Stomp-n-Shake Championships on Saturday March 16, 2019.

Their diets are over, so when they return to the bleachers, out come the candy and blended ice drinks. It’s another two-hour wait, almost, until the other performances have ended, the scores have been tallied and the trophies handed out. The smaller awards are given to the winners of the different categories, and now there’s only one trophy left to present. The girls are seated on the floor, leaning down, their eyes closed.

“The last award goes to the top-scoring team of the night,” the announcer says. “The grand champion,” and she pauses for effect ... “From Highland Springs High School, Blackout. Four years in a row.”

Exploding from the floor, the girls jump up and hug one another. They jump and scream and chant “four-peat.” After the crowd has dispersed, all that is left are the girls, the coaches and the family members who made the drive to see them. They all want their photos with the trophy.

The coaches lean in and pucker up as if they’re about to kiss it. Georgio’s phone is quickly filled with photos of the past 10 minutes.

It’s after 11 p.m. now, and there’s still a long bus ride home. Jadon, who stands maybe 5-foot-2, carries the 6-foot trophy out of the arena, tilting it horizontally to deliver it through the door frame.

The thought begins to cross the girls’ minds – is the season over? Tyson quickly reminds them they have a small performance in two weeks. There are more practices to come. But some of the girls will ride home with their parents, so this is goodbye for now.

The Highland Springs cheer team celebrates after winning grand champion at the 2019 National Stomp-n-Shake Championships for the fourth year in a row on Saturday March 16, 2019.

Outside the bus, Sydni meets her father, Rick. A year ago, she was forced to stay home the day of nationals. This year, she wears a medal around her neck and a hooded sweatshirt reading “Grand Champs 2019” on the back. Rick takes Sydni’s duffel back in his right hand, and the two walk into the darkness together toward their car.

The trophy is hoisted onto the bus and settled into its own seat. It’s after midnight when the drive back to Highland Springs begins. Soon, the lights on the bus are turned out and the girls’ phones go dark. For the next few hours, the coaches don’t have to wonder if they’ll return to the team next year, if the trophy and the jubilation are worth the countless Friday nights and Saturday mornings stuck in the gymnasium.

For now, they can relax and join the girls, who have pulled their hoods up over their heads and blankets up to their chins as they doze off to sleep.