San Rafael High School Cheer Team Heads to Nationals


Elisabeth Fox, Contributor

“We Are SR” echoes throughout the gymnasium hallways of San Rafael High School.

Approaching the small dance room, connected to the main gym, the teen voices grow louder and louder. Every Monday to Thursday, and the occasional Fridays, the SRHS Co-Ed cheer team spends two hours practicing everything they need to master for Nationals, from working on various types of stunts to perfecting their timing. The head coach of the cheer program, Shawna Hoch, has spent 15 years shaping various students into being athletes and leaders of SRHS. When she first became coach, the program was entirely different from what it is now.

Hoch returned to her alma mater in 2007 to coach the cheer program. After a pretty definite no to the offer to become the team’s coach 15 years ago, she went to watch the cheer team perform at a school’s football game, and during the team’s halftime performance, she heard nothing but catcalls. ¨I didn’t want these young girls to be acknowledged by their peers for dancing sexually,¨ Hoch said. This was her awakening to be a leader for these young women so they can be more than just dancers. She wanted them to be prideful in being the walking, talking representatives of San Rafael High School.

“She’s very good at talking to the kids as winners, but making sure they are humble and practice almost like losers,” said Maggie Pullinger, an SRHS cheer alumni and assistant coach for the cheer program.

But wait, shouldn’t this accomplished team be practicing in a larger space, rather than a small dance room?

That’s because SRHS is rich with athletic opportunities throughout the year. As cheer is a two season sport, they often collide with the two main indoor sports during the fall and winter seasons: girls volleyball in the fall and boys and girls basketball in the winter. Both of these athletic programs compete for their time in the two separate gyms on campus, but every year, the cheerleaders get kicked back to that tiny dance room. That being said, this is beneficial for the team as the room is decked out with mirrors on the walls, which allow the cheerleaders to see what they need to correct each time they run a fullout, which is when the team performs a full routine. Despite having to practice in such a small room, this renowned team is still able to take trophy after trophy.

But the moment you walk into the gym, you are greeted with six red, white, and blue banners showcasing the team’s wins, for both Varsity Co-Ed and All Girl, at Nationals. You might ask, why are these banners significant to SRHS’s cheer team? Well, they’re the banners the team has received the past 4 years for winning 1st place and 2 yellow and red banners for the program as a whole. Both were earned from a national competition held by the United Spirit Association, USA, which takes place on February 24th, 2022.

It’s an annual four-day trip for these competitive high schoolers as they put their all into the sport they collectively love. When asked about what her goals were for this season of Nationals, Hoch admitted that “my primary goal is not for them to win. It’s for them to step off that floor without any regrets. If they put everything they had on that mat, then they’ve already won.”

“This happens to be my fourth year going to Nationals and I can say that the excitement is always the same,” said senior Natalin Diaz. As someone who has attended Nationals all four years of high school, she has seen how much the team has evolved as a whole from skillset to determination, it feels surreal as to how far she has come. As these four years have passed by in an instant, Diaz is now able to close the curtain on her fourth and final cheer Nationals.

Hoch has seen generations of cheerleaders go by. During their time on the team and even after they graduate, all of them are still connected to SRHS no matter where they go. Vanessa Jimenez, a 2021 SRHS graduate, was on the Co-Ed team from her freshman to senior year. With a background in competitive gymnastics and her friend pushing her to join cheer, she went to tryouts. Not for the “sparkles and bows,” but for the competitions. She immediately fell in love with the sport and stayed until graduation.

Even after graduating, Jimenez has returned to help coach the All Girl team as her sister is on that team and will be traveling with both Co-Ed Varsity and All Girl to Nationals. As COVID-19 was still making a grand appearance in 2021, USA hosted the high school Nationals virtually. “I know it will feel very surreal to be back out of all the places I’ve been before, but no longer as a cheerleader,” Jimenez said, “That being said, I can’t wait to see the other cheerleaders finally get back this experience.” Being unable to say goodbye to the sport you love is heart-wrenching and a feeling all 2020 and 2021 graduates can relate to, but the way Jimenez is able to bid this arena a final goodbye is a great sense of closure for herself.

While the team was accepting of male cheerleaders, it didn’t really become Co-Ed until 2016 when two boys showed up at tryouts and made the team. This led to more and more male students joining the cheerleading squad at SRHS. In his second year of cheer, Matthew Coronado, a senior at SRHS, will be attending his first in person Nationals in February. “I’d often hear my friends talk about how much time and effort they put into cheer and the thought entered my mind that if I tried hard enough, I could be one too,” Coronado said. SRHS cheer has gone from having 2 boys on a team of 18, to 5 boys on a team of 21.

As a senior going to her first Nationals, Nineveh Winton is anxiously waiting for the 24th to roll around. She has been a member of Game Day cheer her freshman and sophomore year and Co-Ed her junior and senior year, she is finally going to be experiencing her first in person Nationals. Although she has attended Nationals virtually, she was unable to participate in the performance due to her torn ACL. ¨The worst feeling is seeing others do the sport you love while you have to sit on the sidelines,¨ said Winton as she looked back on her first year at Nationals.

This year will be different as Winton is going from sitting on a fold out chair on the sidelines on the school’s quad to standing on the large red mat in the middle of an arena showcasing her talent with the entire cheer team.

“As a USA staff member working at the annual cheer camps during the summer, we teach different types of material: five dances, cheers, unity, and leadership,” said Maggie Pullinger, an alumni from SRHS, USA staff member, and now working as an assistant coach for the cheer program. Being a cheerleader is not just about doing different cheers at football games. It’s just like any other sport with just as much hard work and dedication.

“Where you are now is where your previous self only dreamed of being,” Hoch tells her team every Nationals, which inspires these student athletes year after year. As we see with Jimenez and Pullinger, SRHS cheer alumni keep returning to their high school to help train the next generation of cheerleaders, but it’s also a way for them to relive their past experiences in that dance room.

As the NorCal Spirit Showcase has come to an end, the countdown to Nationals has begun. This showcase only gave a sample of what the cheer program is capable of during a pandemic. The cheer team has endured triumph and tribulations throughout the past couple of years and have fought a pandemic head on. From doing Nationals virtually in 2021 to finally going back on the mat, California will see the potential that the San Rafael High School Cheer Program holds.