Kelly Kirtley describes the world of competitive cheerleading as fast and furious. Her daughter Lindsey, a freshman at Dutch Fork High School and member of its varsity squad, manages to keep up with the pace. In 2014, Dutch Fork placed first at the 4A Cheerleading State Championship, a moment that will always be a career highlight for head cheer coach, Katie Nunnery. A year later, the victory still brings tears to her eyes when it’s mentioned.
“I had amazing kids on that team,” Katie says, adding she had coached some of the students on the winning squad since they had been seventh graders. “I watched them grow up. They were like my babies before I had babies.”
Despite the demanding schedule, Lindsey Kirtley says it’s worth it to be a Dutch Fork Silver Fox. “I love tumbling, being on the mat and competing. I always feel good after a long practice because I know I gave it my best,” she says. “I have learned to work for the person next to me and not just for myself.”
Along with River Bluff, Chapin and Lexington, Dutch Fork is one of several successful Midlands area cheerleading teams. A typical week for the squad involves Monday through Thursday practices, including an hour-long tumbling class at American Cheer X-treme (ACX) one night a week, pep rallies, games on Friday and competitions every Saturday in October and November. When the football and basketball seasons overlap, it gets particularly challenging.
“If our football team is successful, the girls can be finishing up football season, starting basketball and are still competing on weekends,” Katie says, adding that a couple years ago she started a basketball squad to allow more students to cheer who don’t meet the requirements of competitive cheerleading, which also gives the others a break.
Now in her 14th year coaching at Dutch Fork, and her fifth year as head coach, Katie says cheerleading has changed drastically over the past several years. Having cheered while a student at Dutch Fork in the 1990s, both before and after it was first recognized as a sport in South Carolina, she’s experienced the transformation firsthand.
“Cheerleading became a sport in 1996, and it was competitive back then, but not nearly like it is now,” she explains. She jokes with her students that she wouldn’t have been able to make it back then if it had been as competitive as it is today.
Sherri Kirkland agrees. She’s the former Dutch Fork head coach who has also worked for Varsity Spirit Fashion for 22 years, a company that sells cheerleading apparel, and serves as a judge at competitions. Becoming part of the South Carolina High School League not only put cheerleading under the same governing body as other sports, but also gave the sport of cheerleading more credibility. In Sherri’s view, this was a big step.
As a judge, she’s observed that routines are becoming increasingly difficult and entertaining. “The teams are all pushing the envelope on new and creative elements that go into their routines. They get better and better every year,” she says. Lasting 2 minutes and 30 seconds, the routines feature a dazzling combination of partner stunts, pyramids, tumbling, jumps and dance. “You’re amazed at the true athleticism of these young adults.”
While judges are assessing overall performance and experiencing one “wow” moment after another, she says what goes on behind the scenes carries even greater significance.
“When I was coaching, it was just as important that we taught athletes how to be the people they eventually want to be, and I still believe this,” says Sherri, who coached her teams to four state championships and two runner-up titles during her time at Dutch Fork.
“The coach isn’t just there barking orders. You’re there as a confidant; you’re there to teach them about being truthful and honest,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to train them not merely for a successful performance on a Saturday but for the years ahead of them as adults. They’re learning to communicate and be more self-sufficient, and they need guidance.”
Kelly can attest to this. Describing her daughter as driven, she says the 14-year-old has learned to manage her time and work with different types of people toward a common goal, among other valuable lessons.
“Lindsey does very well under pressure,” Kelly says, adding that Katie listens to the girls well, stays in tune with how they’re doing and gives them a rest day on occasion when they need it. “Katie pours her energy into coaching those girls.”
According to Randy Dickey, owner of cheerleading/tumbling training facility ACX in Irmo, teams in the Columbia, Irmo/Chapin and Lexington areas have a broad base of knowledgeable and experienced coaches. He moved to South Carolina in 1996, the same year cheerleading became a sport here. It’s part of the reason ACX, now also with a facility in Summerville, opened where it did.
“Our premise was to teach competitive cheerleading, and a lot of athletic directors saw the value in what we offered and saw that we were consistent,” Randy explains. A cheerleader his senior year in high school, he cheered at Georgia State University too and taught his first class in 1991 at an Atlanta gym owned by his coach. Private lessons were $60 an hour, and he was happy to learn he could make a living doing something he loved.
“I decided to stay in the business. I enjoyed it, it paid the bills, and I became more and more fascinated by it,” he says. In 1998, he bought out the business that was originally a partnership. ACX offers assistance with music, team choreography, tumble classes, cheer classes, stretch classes and help in cleaning up routines. Randy’s enjoyment stems from the instant gratification it brings.
“Every day, you teach kids a new skill and watch them learn something,” he says. “You get to watch them get a new part of their routine. They get better right in front of you.”
No two days are the same, either, according to the seasoned instructor. “It’s a different challenge every day. It keeps you on your toes,” he says, adding that ACX takes great care in following the proper progression to help athletes learn their routines. “You don’t just see something on YouTube and expect to be able to do it right away.”
It’s a process that takes patience and discipline, which Katie says she frequently reminds her girls. “It’s so competitive and very consuming. I think it’s a good challenge,” she says. “They’re good kids, they try hard, and they’re successful in and out of the classroom.”
When they get a break from the classroom in the summer, the Dutch Fork cheerleading squad hosts the “Little Girls Cheer Clinic.” In July of this past summer, they had 180 campers in attendance at the weeklong camp.
“We want to get them interested in cheerleading at a young age and give them the skills they will need later,” Katie explains, adding that the cheerleaders use their own money to buy candy and other treats for campers and create special awards for them. “It makes me proud to see the girls interact with the campers. When they run into cheerleaders at the mall or grocery store, their faces light up,” she says. “They run up to them and give them a hug.”
As fast-paced as competitive cheering is, they’re making time for their community and the next generation. “The team looks forward to the clinic every year. They truly love those kids,” she says. “And they’re the future of our program.”
Being involved in the program is one major way Lindsey expresses her pride in her school, but she’s also growing qualities under Katie’s coaching that will equip her for the coming years.
“The time commitment can be hard, but I choose to cheer because I want to be a part of my school,” says Lindsey, who her mother describes not only as a workhorse but also the quintessential cheerleader — bubbly and outgoing. “I have learned how to be a leader and to be more confident in myself.”