The Rio Dell Panthers exceeded all expectations in cheerleading competition this season, earning an invite to the Nationals in Las Vegas in May.
The Panthers began the season with just four girls who had ever even competed before this year, but quickly grew together, winning all four local competitions they attended and then going a step farther.
“We wanted to see what they could at the next level,” team coach Kim Brown said.
And she wasn’t disappointed.
The next level was the Northern California Challenge Cup, which the Rio Dell girls won last weekend, earning the right to compete in next month’s national tournament.
“We got a partially paid bid to go to nationals, but as of now, I don’t think we’ll be able to make it,” Brown said.
Funds and the availability of the girls have put the trip into doubt, with many of the cheerleaders competing in other sports.
“We’ve got one girl who plays AAU basketball, softball, track and does cheer,” the coach said.
Regardless of whether they make the trip, it’s been a very successful season for the Panthers, who won tournaments at Hydesville and Ferndale, as well as the Dare to Dream at Bear RIver Casino and the prestigious Crescent City Jaycees tournament last month.
Even more impressively, the small school features just two eighth graders and had to compete against bigger squads with more experience.
The Rio Dell squad features 10 girls between fifth and eighth grade, including four fifth graders.
Brown admits she did not foresee this much success for this group at the outset of the season in December.
“We only had four returning girls,” the coach said. “Other than that, it was everybody’s first year cheering for us. That was a challenge, but it was also one of our strengths. The older girls took the younger girls under their wings and helped guide them through it.”
Brown, who was a cheerleader at Rio Dell when she was a young girl, has been coaching for several years, the past three with the Panthers.
At Crescent City, the Rio Dell girls not only won their division but were first overall, and at Stockton last weekend, in addition to the middle school division they also won the sportsmanship award, which is chosen by the competition staff.
“They got to take home championship rings and that was pretty cool for them,” Brown said.
The coach also believes cheerleading is a lot more of a sport than people think and will help her girls in any sport they compete in and more.
“It takes more than people think,” she said. “It helps them in other sports and we try to teach them about things in life. Like getting to practice on time and having your uniform ready, these are all things that will help them later in life.”
The Rio Dell roster includes eighth graders Zoe Dewberry and Lindsy Leming, seventh graders Allie and Chloe Cox, sixth graders Dakota James and Emily Sauers, and fifth graders Taylor Heussler, Nadya Moore, Desi Thompson and Moriah Gregory.
Brown’s assistant coaches include her sister Kelsey George, who also competed with the Rio Dell cheerleaders when she was younger, as well as Lily MacMillan and Abby Samaniego, and instructor Jesieka Lippincott.
Ray Hamill writes at humboldtsports.com, where you can read lots more about sports in Humboldt County.