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August 3, 2018

Courtesy Photo

Cheer captains Savannah Parrot, Natalia Morales, and Kaitlin Knowlden posing with the team’s trophies from CSA Camp, held last month at CU Boulder

It has been a dramatic year for the Niwot cheer squad. After nearly disbanding last August, former Niwot High and University of Colorado cheerleader Alexis Bellinger assumed the helm, and led the team to an inspiring top-15 finish at the Class 4A state competition in December. A successful spring recruiting drive added a new crop of ardent freshman, and then two weeks ago, the cheerleaders dominated the competition at CSA Cheer Camp at CU-Boulder and brought home two first-place trophies for their efforts.

Now, heading into her second year as head coach, Bellinger feels the program is stronger than it has been in years, and she isn’t shy about setting some high expectations for her youthful program, including a top-10 finish at state.

“I’m excited about the passion and commitment that all of the girls are showing,” she said. “One of the things that everyone can look forward to in the fall is a really powerful team that is going to have a lot of experience and be really prepared, even though half of our girls are new.”

This year’s squad will be headed by a trio of seniors: Savannah Parrot (head captain), Kaitlin Knowlden (co-captain), and Natalia Morales (co-captain). Each has been with the squad since her freshman year, a period that included some tumultuous times for the program.

“I’ve had a total of six coaches and assistant coaches during my high school cheer career,” Parrot wrote in an email. “Each of the coaches has had a different style… Coach Bellinger is the first of my coaches to return for a second year and that continuity means a lot to us.”

Parrott, too, is eager to see what the youthful team will do in the upcoming months. She and the other captains will be joined by a handful of sophomores and juniors plus nine freshman, who don’t bring a wealth of formal background to the team, but make up for it with “excitement.”

“I’ve enjoyed working with our freshmen because they are trying really hard to show what they can do and I’ve been so pleased with the progress they’ve already made,” Parrot continued. “It’s great to see the improvements that we’ve made as a squad this summer and as a result we have great momentum as we start the year.”

Bellinger credits her senior captains and their parents for keeping the team together during some tough stretches.

“That core group of parents has really been supportive to me as a coach,” she said. “You don’t always luck out and get amazing parents, and that’s been one of the biggest things this year.”

She is also happy to see the trio enjoy some hard-earned success going into their senior years.

“They’re really doing everything they can to make this their best year,” she added. “That’s my goal for them as seniors. To leave this year with no regrets, and feeling like this is the best season we’ve had. I want to give them the season that they deserve.”

Not that she expects it to be easy. Her team might be passionate and committed, but for today’s cheerleading team, passion and commitment are only half the battle. The contemporary sports fan (and competition judge) expects a lot more athleticism and “polish” from a cheer squad, according to Bellinger.

“It’s not just poms and a great uniform and a loud voice anymore. It’s no longer exciting to see people hold up signs and yell; now they want to see us lifting people in the air.”

To help the team ratchet up the degree of difficulty, she has enlisted the help of new assistant Christina Ayers, another former CU cheerleader who brings more than 10 years’ coaching experience to the team, with an emphasis in tumbling and stunts. The team has also started working with the “incredibly supportive” Cheer Central, an elite private cheerleading academy that provides “not just some of the best coaches in Colorado, but also the nation.”

Bellinger has added several festivals and group competitions to the fall schedule, including Spirit Fest at Elitch Gardens in September, and the Rocky Mountain Showdown in November. This is in addition to Northern League and Class 4A postseason competitions, which are typically held in November.

Bellinger has also emphasized adding organization and discipline to their routines.

“Most people’s favorite part of a cake is frosting,” she said. “Most people’s favorite part of a cheer routine is also that extra finish, so that’s what we’ve been working on; everyone knowing their spots, everyone knowing their motions, hitting something and it’s really solid. We call it being clean.”

Courtesy Photo

The Niwot cheer team won two competitions at a CSA Camp, held last month at CU Boulder. Niwot took home first-place trophies for Game Day performance and Superior Skill Level.

The team also has several upcoming fundraising activities planned, including the Rock & Rails Tip Jar on Aug. 23, and a mini-cheer camp on Aug. 25. Unlike their counterparts in team sports, the Niwot cheer team receives no funding from the school or district beyond their coaches’ salaries. Money raised by the team goes towards uniforms, travel, practice mats, and additional training with outside coaches.

Bellinger is encouraged by the turnaround in her program over the last 12 months, and has been pleased with the support offered by Niwot’s administration. One day, she hopes to see the team blossom into a full-blown spirit program, complete with a junior varsity team and even a competitive dance squad.

“Even from year one to year two I’ve seen great strides,” Bellinger said. “But to be in the final every year, to be top-five at state, to start competing nationally, you have to build that, and it takes time and patience and commitment.”


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