The boys’ basketball team fell in the first round, but East Carter High School still has a chance to be the Cinderella story of the Sweet Sixteen state tournament — in cheerleading.
“It’s an extremely important competition,” said East Carter cheer coach David Schuch. “It is huge.”
Under the concrete bleachers and away from the crowds sit impressive cobalt blue trophies destined for the winners of the little-known in-game cheer competition.
Sponsored by the Kentucky Association of Pep Organization Sponsors, or KAPOS, the contest is to the Kentucky cheer world what the Golden Globes are to movie awards: not quite the big Oscar dance — that would be the state competition — but still something you want to bring home.
As the clock ticked during the Sweet Sixteen’s first game, Schuch crouched in front of his squad. The East Carter fans’ energy was flagging as the score widened and Warren Central solidified its lead. But Schuch, mouthing the words to every cheer, was on his squad.
“You’ve only got four minutes to go,” he told his cheerleaders. “Keep your faces up. Arms straight.”
A former Morehead State University cheerleader, Schuch (pronounced “shook”) came from Grayson to Rupp Arena on Friday along with six buses filled with fans. The smallest school in the tournament, East Carter hadn’t made the cut to play in the storied state basketball tournament in more than 20 years. On the court, the team fell to Warren Central, 55-36, but because of the structure of the cheer competition, the school could win on the sidelines.
Cheer squads from each of the 16 schools whose boys’ basketball teams made it into the state tournament are judged during their first round of play, on Wednesday and Thursday. A cadre of well-dressed, poker-faced women with grading sheets tallied the scores. A perfect score of 100 points rates not only cheer moves — on precision and quality of jumps, for instance — but also crowd interaction and presentation, including everything from a just-so shade of lipstick to the Lady Gaga hair bows the girls wear.
The winner of the cheer competition will be announced during half-time of one of Friday’s semifinal games.
Hoping to score some points, the East Carter squad made up T-shirts with a slogan in honor of their coach.
“We Schuch it all the way to Rupp,” said junior Alleigh Oney.
The cheer squads have competed in the Sweet Sixteen for 50 years, said Reba Johnson, a KAPOS officer. That means the competition pre-dates most of the cheerleader performance competitions made famous by endless runnings on one of the ESPN stations. “We are very unique,” she said.
Shelby County’s cheer coach, Heather Fallen, said the tournament’s cheerleading contest is not widely known outside the cheer world.
But with her squad having finished fourth twice in the past five years, she has taken to heart the judges’ suggestions for improvement. More signs, they had advised. So Fallen spent the last pre-game moments handing out posters for fans to wave in support of their team.
MacKenzie Smith, a sophomore cheerleader from Warren Central, fretted before she bounced onto the court at half time. “I’m nervous,” she said to one of her coaches. “The crowd is so big. What if I bust my face?”
Fortunately, only moves were busted, and Smith, who said she had heard about the in-game competition only a day before the tournament began, said she managed to pull it together on the court.
East Carter’s Schuch, who coordinated with the school’s band director to extract optimum pep from the crowd, hopes his squad can go all the way and that the basketball team gets them back into the competition next year.
“It’s been a long time,” he said.