Hollywood script: LaGrange game day cheer team battles adversity to win first competition in team history

Published 6:02 pm Tuesday, November 21, 2023

The LaGrange game day cheer team could take their past weekend, put it in a script and sell it to Hollywood as a classic underdog sports movie.

The team fought through more than its fair share of adversity to compete in their first game day cheer competition in the program’s history on Saturday in Thomasville, winning best in the division and grand champ for the entire tournament.

“We were supposed to leave the school at 11 on a charter bus on Friday and at 11 the football team left and we put all of our stuff on the sidewalk and get ready and found out that our charter bus was not coming,” Bailey Wilson said. “At first we thought it was late, but we ended up having to take a school bus all the way four hours to Savannah and then four hours away to Thomasville the next morning.”

Not a soul on the team had more than a few hours of sleep heading into Saturday’s competition after having to cheer the football team on in Savannah on Friday night.

Their Saturday morning somehow had another unexpected curveball thrown into the picture.

“That morning (assistant coach) Becca Davis and I came downstairs and all the girls are just standing around and we were like ‘y’all eat already?’” coach Mitzi Norton said. “It turns out the cook did not show up.”

Grabbing whatever food they could find, the Grangers hit the road and could only laugh at how their weekend had been going so far.

It was no laughing matter when the team arrived as the girls were lost going into Saturday’s performance. The team was a ball of nervous energy as they warmed up.

That energy dissipated as the Grangers stood just outside the gym. As the girls heard chants of LHS ring throughout the gymnasium from just outside the door, the energy changed from nervousness to unbridled excitement.

The tired, but exuberant team of 20 took the mat with a purpose and delivered a show-stopping performance.  

The team began to believe in their chances, a belief that was not present all season.

Their coaches being their biggest supporters kept the girls going. Even when they did not believe in themselves, the coaches found a way to make them believe. 

“They were saying the whole time since our first practice that we are going to win the whole thing, and we were like yeah sure, what are y’all talking about?” Grace Burns said. “They have been our biggest supporters.”

Belief is key for the Grangers, but so is trust. The girls have to trust their teammates fully, whether it is something as simple as sign placement or something as complex as a stunt.

Trust did not come as naturally as it might seem with the team. When the team first gathered together in the summer to embark on this first season of competitive gameday cheerleading, trust was not as prevalent as it is now.

The girls had cliques and sub-groups like in years past, but the team has forged a true family bond this year.

The roles the girls occupied were often foreign and unfamiliar at first. The girls have shown an ability to grow and learn.

“We had to learn how to twirl a flag,” Kylah Johnson said. “It was challenging at first, but we had a coach come in and she said you need to move your arm like this and I did it and it was perfect. It clicked for me.”

Girls, who in the past were in the background, now have had to take leadership roles on the team.

“I was kind of nervous to lead the cheer because I feel like there’s kind of a big role,” Quaniya Fannin said. “I feel so much more comfortable and calm now when leading the cheer on game day.”

Many of the girls were competition cheerleaders, who had to adjust to the differences in the gameday competition events.

“I’m a senior so this is going to be my first year participating in gameday competitions and that’s not like the competitions I’ve competed in previously,” Laila Bailey said. “This was like the first competition thing I’ve ever been, where I was, like, really motivated, and I just anticipated us doing really well.”

Jayda Whitlow added: “It’s difficult in a different way than competition is like, you have to think of all these different components of the routine, like shouting out and being sharp and mental. Yeah, you can’t look down whenever you’re picking up your pom poms and you can’t drop a smile.”

All this hard work and determination came to fruition this past Saturday. Despite droopy eyes and with energy drinks pumping through their systems, the girls took the mat for the second round with a steely determination.

Leaving the mats, the girls felt like they put in a performance worthy of being near the top, but when two-time reigning state champions Mary Persons was announced as the runner-ups, a wave of surprise overtook the LaGrange squad as they knew the inevitable was coming.

Before they announced any of the awards, I was like, ‘it’s gonna be okay y’all no matter what because I didn’t think that we were going to actually win,” Mallie Crawford said. “Even if we got second it was going to be fine. And when they announced Mary Persons was the second I was shocked.”

On Dec. 8, the Grangers will travel to Atlanta and have a chance to bring a state championship back to Troup County. Knocking off the reigning state champions would have been enough for some teams, but for the Grangers, it only made them hungrier in their pursuit of the ultimate goal.

“We were kind of upset at first because we were riding a cheese wagon (aka a school bus) and we were thinking it was going to be uncomfortable,” McKenzie Aldridge said. “Now, we wouldn’t change it for the world.”

The LaGrange cheerleaders’ biggest cheerleader over the weekend was their bus driver Jameel Dixon.

“We would have a charter bus for state but we don’t want a charter bus for state. We want a yellow bus and we want Jameel to drive us because everything happens for a reason,” Norton said. “We wouldn’t have had him up there cheering us on like he was if we had a charter bus.”

The team enjoyed their bonding experience so much this past weekend that they will be taking a cheese wagon to state. 

“It’s something that we can do for ourselves,” Lilly Rollins said. “We’ve always cheered for the football team and we love that, but now we get to do it for ourselves.”

The team consists of Grace Burns, Bailey Wilson, Mallie Crawford, Emily Arrington, Mollie Lundy, Lilly Rollins, Lilly Johnson, Quaniya Fannin, MacKenzie Aldridge, Belle Soloman, Abigail Mclain, Kylah Johnson, Adiyah Lipscomb, Avery Upchurch, Sydnee Jennings, Jayda Whitlow, Stella Cain, Liliana Robinson, Addison Paul, Laila Bailey, Bailey Orr and Hayden Emerson.