More than 150 teams from across the state are converging in Columbus on Friday and Saturday for the Georgia High School Association Cheerleading State Championship.
Houston County will be represented by four teams, including powerhouses and defending champions Houston County and Veterans high schools.
Both teams are locked into the state finals Saturday, while Warner Robins High School will be fighting Friday for the right to compete Saturday. Most of the teams are all-girl squads, but Perry High School is competing in the co-ed division, which will crown a champion Friday.
The cheerleading teams are broken up into classes determined by school size and type. Houston County High was the 2012 Class AAAAA champion and Veterans High, a smaller school, was the Class AAAA champ. First Presbyterian Day School, a private school in Macon, is the lone Macon team in the state competition, competing in the Class A classification.
As defending champions, Houston and Veterans will feel some pressure to repeat.
Both teams have been practicing routines all week. Each one will have 2 minutes and 30 seconds to impress the judges, their routines incorporating dancing, tumbling, stunts and precision movements.
At Thursdays practice -- with their 2012 championship poster hanging above them -- the Houston County High cheerleaders sweated, argued, laughed and bonded. Friends and supporters stopped by to watch them run through their routine at full speed, and the junior varsity squad dropped off balloons and notes of encouragement.
Team coaches scrutinized the girls from the side, stopping them with each mistake and making them restart, hoping that muscle memory and adrenaline will help drive them to perfection in competition.
Expectations are really high, said Jessica Brown, one of the coaches. The girls are wanting the same experience that they had last year, especially the seniors. They want to end their final year as state champions.
It was the best feeling in the world to win, said Ericka Dunn, a senior and one of the team leaders.
In practice, several girls wore knee braces, and one of them used an ice pack to sooth her aches after performing tumbles.
Its just physically demanding and physically draining, Brown said. They hurt and they have to push through.
Nobody thinks its a sport, but it is, Dunn said. We might not be throwing a ball or anything like that, but we work our butts off.
At Warner Robins High, assistant coach Ami Lenderman said the team has had to overcome several major injuries this year.
One of the teams fliers (the girls lifted by their teammates for aerial stunts) tore a ligament in her knee, Lenderman said. And then we had another one of our cheerleaders with medical issues in the hospital for a week.
The team barely qualified for state as the fourth-place Class AAAAA team at region competition Saturday.
Toward the end of practice Thursday, Brown lead the Houston County cheerleaders in a team bonding game in which teams of four and five girls were prompted to form uppercase letters on the mat by falling flat and creating them with their bodies.
Brown and fellow coach Makenna Buffington are in their first year with the team.
After they won the state title, they didnt know what to expect with new coaches. They didnt want the program to go downhill, Brown said. Weve overcome that and we have bonded together really well.
After taking first place at Saturdays region competition in the Class AAAAA, the Houston High team is going to Columbus peaking at the right time.
Were very excited to see how the girls perform this weekend, Brown said. We have a good chance at placing in the top again.
The GHSA Cheerleading State Championship will be videostreamed live on NFHSNetwork.com/GHSA and GPB.org/sports from the Columbus Civic Center. Georgia Public Broadcasting will televise a cheerleading special on Nov. 23 at 5 p.m.
To contact writer Andres David Lopez, call 744-4382.