GLENVIEW — Seven years ago, only five females were on the cheerleading team at Glenbrook South High School in Glenview, so school administrators discontinued the program.
“No one reacted to the cancelation. New Trier East High School had canceled theirs, too,” said Jim Shellard, assistant principal of student activities at GBS.
Because many school sports programs were available for females, Shellard said they had more opportunities to play in competitive sports, such as volleyball and soccer.
But that changed in 2006 when the Illinois High School Association sanctioned cheerleading as a sport, thus allowing teams to meet and compete.
“Cheerleading is much more athletic now, too. Teams tumble, make pyramids and throw teammates up in the air,” Shellard said.
For those reasons, he explained, the cheerleading squad has grown in members and has found success in state level meets.
On Jan. 4 in Springfield, Ill., the GBS Varsity Cheerleading Squad won a bronze medal after competing with 14 of the top Illinois teams.
To qualify for the competition, the team made history by taking first place at the Andrew High School Invitational on Dec. 21 in Tinley Park.
But Shellard pointed to another reason why cheerleading has made a big, popular comeback at the school, and her name is Stephanie Fuja, whom he hired as a GBS art teacher and cheerleading coach in 2008.
Today, the varsity and junior varsity Cheerleader Titans have 42 teen athletes.
A cheerleading season is 10 months, and they perform at GBS basketball and football games.
“Yes, it was intimidating when I came here, but felt I could do it with the opportunity, because my experience as a pom cheering with the Stevenson Spirit Revolution was very competitive,” said Fuja, a 2003 graduate of Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire.
“To be a good coach you must have expertise in your sport and know how to interact with the different personalities on your team,” she said.
Shellard said the students have worked “very hard and it’s really paying off.
“And it’s a fact that (Fuja) brought in a higher expectation. She has success and respect,” he said.
Both squads practice 12 hours a week at GBS, overseen by Fuja and assistant coach/choreographer Jason Powell, who works for the Universal Cheerleading Association.
He also is a dancer and office manager for Energy Productions, an interactive DJ entertainment business in Northbrook.
“Cheerleading incorporates dance, gymnastics, tumbling and physics,” he said, watching 110-pound girls launch into the air, spin around and return to the arms of teammates below.
Throughout a typical practice, the dull thud of bodies smacking into shoulders, arms and heads was near constant, as one stunned and dazed cheerleader, taking a shot to her jaw after catching a teammate, took a break.
Arms and ankles buckled, and back-flipping cheerleaders tumbled to the mat face first, ready to go again.
In throwing and catching teammates, Powell said creating foundations of balance was the most important technique.
“You absorb and lift with your legs. We exercise a lot for lower and upper body strength. Repetition is key,” said Powell, who was a cheerleader at DePaul University, Chicago.
Jamie Bendewald, a senior and team captain, has applied to five Big Ten Conference colleges.
“My first year here, we had three of our tumblers. Now we have a full team and the once easy stunts are a lot more complex,” she said.
“We have senior-year cheerleaders who are passionate about all this. They bring the younger ones along, which helps us get very good,” Bendewald added.
Teammate Tara Graff said cheerleaders from around Illinois attend a summer camp, which this year was held at Northern Illinois University, DeKalb.
“We learn from each other — stunting skills, dance, cheers and jumps,” said Graff, also a captain who broke her hand while cheering last year.
“This year it’s an inflamed kneecap. Injuries in general are common, and our coaches make sure we have a safe environment,” she said.
Fuja believed why the program faltered for years was because of “coaches coming and going.”
“I had goals six years ago and they’ve been exceeded, which means so much to me,” Fuja said.
Earlier in the practice, she stood close to an upset, teary-eyed cheerleader, talking to her off to the side.
“They’re passionate about this sport and get emotional. I’m someone they can turn to for other things, too, like issues with friends,” Fuja said.
“As a coach, that’s the type of relationship I like. It keeps people coming back to be on a team that I’m coaching.”