Minooka Junior High cheer team takes home first-place title

After two first place titles in two years, the Minooka Junior High School competition cheer team felt as though they had something to prove, and what they proved was that they were still No. 1 as they took another first place title at a state competition.

“This felt really good for the eighth graders who have been on the team since sixth grade and now have three state trophies from their junior high career,” MJHS cheer coach Jenna Ponio said.

The MJHS staff and students gathered on Jan. 25 in the gym for a celebration of the state title. The team was identified and performed in front of their peers, teachers, staff and parents.

On Jan. 21, Ponio took the 12 girls on the MJHS competition cheer team into a state competition to battle against 14 other teams in the small cheer division in Peoria. Ponio said she felt like the team had a target on its back due to its success the past two years.

“It went smooth, the only hurdle was that we had won state two years in a row, so we were the team to watch and judges waited for us to make any mistake. I felt like the judges were harder on our score sheet,” Ponio said.

But, that stiff competition from the other teams and high demand for accuracy from the judges did not phase the team, nor did the fact that they had won two years in the past. Ponio said the girls never felt entitled to win, but showed up to compete.

Ponio has coached cheer for a total of 15 years, six at MJHS. In those years, she has learned that routines need to be about the basics and only when those are perfected can the routine move forward. She said she sees so many talented teams who choose higher degrees of difficulty where more points can be earned, but the moves have proved too challenging which left room for mistakes.

She said her team proved to be a strong team year after year because, “The girls need to buy in to the fact that we need to perfect the basics and build from the ground up, some teams do something too difficult.,” Ponio said. “We may do basic skills 100 times before we move on. As a coach, I have evolved and learned from past mistakes. Instead of focusing on difficulty, we focus on what we are in control of.”

She said each season she looks at the girls from sixth, seventh and eighth grades and the score sheets and matches the year’s talent to create a routine to earn the most points.

MJHS Assistant Principal and Athletic Director Adrianne McKerrow said state cheer competitions do not require qualifications to attend the event, but each team must choose a division in which to compete. Three years ago, the team brought home the first place trophy in competition cheer for the first time in school history in the large cheer division and then has taken the state title in small cheer the past two years.

The cheerleading sideline team consisted of 24 girls and out of those girls, 12 qualified for the competition team. Ponio said she had many girls on the sideline squad who also cheer for outside competition teams and she required that the girls on the MJHS competition team be able to attend all three competition events in order to be on the team. Twelve of the 24 girls were on the competition squad and which also was why they identified themselves under the small cheer division.

Ponio said, as she watched the girls perform, she knew they nailed it and could not find many, if any flaws in the routine.

“Coach Ponio is creating quite the legacy. I am proud of the young ladies, too.” McKerrow said. “Time and time again, the girls go down and perform a nearly perfect routine which shows the work ethic of the students, coach and parents.”

McKerrow said Ponio understands cheer and knows how to push the girls as far as she can and, with support from the parents, the team has been successful.

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