CABOT, Ark. — As Cabot celebrated on the far side of the mat inside the Hot Springs Convention Center, Ashley Cooper and Kristen Sumler were both, as Cooper called it, "a little bit shaky". It was a moment three years in the making, that ten months prior looked anything but certain.
"The last day of school was our tryouts," said Cooper, the co-head cheerleading coach at Cabot High School. "We had tryouts on the very last day of school and they announced we'd be out of school and then we never returned."
Cheerleading, like most things in the spring of 2020, was put on hold due to the coronavirus. And for the majority of the summer, the 2020-2021 season looked like it was in jeopardy.
"There was some talk earlier in the year about not competing," Kristen Sumler, the other head coach of the Panthers said, "Coach Cooper and I were like, 'that's not an option' we're going to compete, we're going to try no matter what it takes."
On December 19, 2020, Cabot cheer won their first 5A/6A state championship in program history. Due to COVID-19, it was also the first time the team competed with everyone on the floor.
"Cheerleading is unique," said Sumler, "it's not like football. If one of your lineman goes out, you can't just put another one in. In cheerleading we have 27 girls on the mat, and the routine is designed for 27 girls."
"And boys, she quickly added, "We had two boys on the squad this season."
Before this, the Panthers had never even made it to the final, finishing fourth in their first year of competition before falling to a disappointing fifth in 2019.
"We're crazy," Sumler said, "at the end of three minute routine, we put five lifts at the end of our routine, which in years past have not worked out for us."
This year, the squad which boasted nine seniors, was determined to not let it happen again.
"In previous years we've kind of messed up in our fight song, which is the very last thing," said senior cheer captain Marissa Brown. "But this year we were all in our last lift, our last thing ever, we were all screaming. And then I remember my back spot looking around to make sure everyone hit, and she was like, 'we did it! we did it!"
For a team and a sport that is so used to supporting others, it was gratifying to have a moment to celebrate their own success.
"We're fine with that role because we love doing it," said Cooper, "but this was unique because this was our chance to have that title, and we had not experienced that before. Cabot had never had a state title in cheer. And so it was pretty neat, we were all pretty excited."