It was a daunting task.
After taking third in the Illinois High School Association’s Competitive Cheerleading state competition last year, the Somonauk Lady Bobcats – who also qualified in 2005 – lost most of their squad to graduation, which made their chances of qualifying this year even more difficult than normal.
“Having lost seven seniors last year we knew we would have a rebuilding year this year,” coach Laci McConoughay said. “We were a little nervous at the beginning, but these girls blew away my expectations and had an amazing season.”
“I didn’t think that we would at first,” senior co-captain Jacquelyn Thorp said, about their chances of returning to state.
“After we started doing our routine, we just got more confidence in the squad,” fellow senior and co-captain Rylie Olson added. “We came through in the end.”
“I didn’t know if we’d be able to get to state, but I’m glad we did,” junior Brianna Lichtenauer added.
Not only did the Lady Bobcats qualify for state – by taking third at the Byron Sectional on Jan. 26 – they did so with confidence.
“We are going down there to place,” Olson said, the night before the team left for U.S. Cellular Coliseum in Bloomington, where the state competition was conducted. “But no matter what happens, we know everyone is proud of us.”
After narrowly edging out Wilmington, 79.86 to 79.82, to take 10th in the primary round on Feb. 1, Somonauk finished seventh with 82.14 points.
Byron, which just edged out the Lady Bobcats for second at their own sectional, finished fourth in the state finals (83.78). Dwight won the small team division with 87.2 points.
As McConoughay explained, only the top 10 teams in each division on the first day of the two-day competition advanced to the finals on Saturday.
Unlike other sports, which are divided into class sizes, McConoughay said competitive cheerleading is divided into teams: small team, medium team, large team and co-ed. With 16 members, 12 of whom could compete and four alternates, Somonauk competed in the small team division.
“I think the girls performed great,” McConoughay said. “We had a rough performance on Day 1, but still made it to top 10 and finals on Day 2. The girls shook it off and performed much better. They have such a spark about them. I was very proud. Placing seventh in state is a win to me.”
“It’s kind of a relief because you work so hard,” Olson said about placing again. “It’s very rewarding.”
“It’s amazing,” Thorp agreed.
“This is a tremendous feat,” Somonauk Athletic Director Elizabeth Ness said. “This is a talented and dedicated group of girls. They represent our school very well. Coach McConoughay does a very good job in getting the girls to go above and beyond.”
A professional makeup artist, McConoughay – a former high school All-American cheerleader herself – is in her fifth year as Somonauk’s coach.
“I moved here five years ago from Chicago,” she said. “The first time I ever went to Somonauk, I had never heard of it and I got lost. Now I could get there with my eyes closed.”
Besides virtually forming a new team, McConoughay said they also had to develop a new routine, which they have to do every year.
According to Olson, the team hires a choreographer, who will design a routine based on what kind of theme McConoughay wants, which they learn in one grueling 10-hour practice.
From there, Thorp said, they “tweak it along the way. We kind of take one piece out and work on it.”
Since it’s a new routine, it’s something both the veterans and the newcomers to the team have to learn together.
One of those newcomers is senior Lauren Peterson, who gave up dancing – something she’s done her whole life – to join this year’s team.
“All three years (of high school), I’ve watched them,” she said. “I felt it was something cool and I wanted to be on the team.”
So what does she think of what happened?
“I love it,” she said. “We have gone through a lot of hard work. It’s brought us a good outcome.”
Freshman Emma Brooks, who has been cheerleading since the seventh grade, agreed.
“It’s so cool,” she said. “I’m so proud of our team..”
Brooks, who gave up gymnastics to go out for cheerleading, admitted high school cheerleading is more difficult than she expected. Aware of how her teammates had done the year before, she had the desire to match it.
“I felt a lot of pressure,” she said. “We need to be the best.”
For Lichtenauer, this was a new experience in more ways than one. The dark-haired junior transferred to Somonauk from Alabama. Unlike Illinois, she said, Alabama doesn’t have competitive cheerleading, so she only cheered during football and basketball games before.
“It’s really fun and exciting,” she said of the competition. “It’s hard, but in a good way.”
Saying the girls are technically basketball cheerleaders, McConoughay said they represent the school at all its events, including competitive cheerleading.
“Bigger schools have the luxury of having 1,000 kids to choose from (for competition),” she said.
But in her case, it doesn’t matter.
“I’m very proud of these girls,” McConoughay said, adding that she couldn’t have achieved what she has if it wasn’t for the parents and the school. “I couldn’t have asked for a better season, back to back. I’m one happy coach. We’re hoping to keep this a tradition.”