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Lots of fun and hard work paid off for the Owen Termites cheer squad. On Sept. 23 at Brevard High School, they placed third in a division competition among other teams made up of girls eight years old and under. And on Saturday, Sept. 30, they faced off against seven other teams their age during the WNC Football and Cheerleading championship.

“This is a huge deal with the organization as the cheerleaders haven't placed at a competition in years, maybe never,” said Amber Puckett, Owen Youth Cheer commissioner. “The girls came up short and didn’t place in the top four (Sept. 30) but worked hard and have lots to be proud of."

Owen Youth Football and Cheerleading has been “a crucial part” of instruction that Swannanoa Valley youth have received in sport fundamentals and sportsmanship, Puckett said. Termites competition, in both football and cheer, is for kids eight and under. Mites is for kids 9 and 10, and Midgets is for children 11 and 12. (Learn more at wncyouthfootballandcheer.com.)

Kids at each level compete against other cheer squads and football teams throughout and outside Buncombe County. There are two divisions in Western North Carolina. The Owen teams compete in the east division, which also encompasses Brevard, Rosman, T.C. Roberson, East Buncombe, Hendersonville and East, West and North Henderson teams (Termite, Mite and Midget teams are typically named for the high school in their district).

Camps and competition for cheer and football start in July and run through Oct. 7. And now it’s championship time in cheer.

On Saturday, the top four teams in the east division, including the Owen Termites, will compete against the top four teams in the west division (composed of teams from other parts of Buncombe County, as well as Madison and Haywood counties).

The third-place showing that the Owen girls are bringing into the tournament “puts Owen on the map for working hard and doing their best to make the Valley proud,” Puckett, the division commissioner for two years, said. “It’s an honor to be around these girls. Our girls work extremely hard.”

Elizabeth Barrett knows all about that – she’s the coach of the Termites. This group of about a dozen girls has been together for two years and now has girls ranging in age from 2 to 8, all from the Swannanoa and Black Mountain area. They practice three days a week during the season. They’ve been practicing five days a week to prepare for competition.

The seven-girl squad (the younger ones can’t compete) have to do two routines in the finals – a technical cheer and a “crowd pleaser.” In both instances, judges who have cheered at the college level will judge the squad’s formations, creativity, tightness of motion, synchronicity, voice projection and jumps, as well as use of props.

The girls have to do everything that high school cheerleaders do – toe touches, hurdles, pike jumps and tuck jumps, everything except stunts and tumbling. Routines last one to three minutes and must include at least two jumps and one formation change.

“We do at least three jumps and at least two formations changes,” Barrett said, all within a 10-yard spread. The work is challenging for the older girls and especially challenging for the younger ones, she said.

“We’re lucky they can walk and talk at the same time,” she said, laughing. “We have to make sure they all do something together and it doesn’t look like a big blob. The eight-year-olds get it, and the younger ones eventually get it. They’re expected to be just as good and capable as what a 13-year-old can do.”

Working together teaches the girls teamwork and selflessness, while improving their fitness and bolstering their self-esteem, Puckett said. Her daughter has been a part of the Termites for the past five years. The girls, who cheer during the Termite football games on Saturdays, are in shape by the end of the season, if they weren’t to begin with.

Coaching them takes a deft touch. They’re super-enthusiastic and full of energy. “But keeping their attention is extremely difficult,” Barrett, a former Owen High cheerleader and current coach, said. “I’m definitely a tough coach, but they crack me up. It’s really hard to put your foot down sometimes. The things that come out of their mouths, it’s hilarious.”

The Termites went into the Sept. 30 WNC Football and Cheerleading competition full of fire. They’re “very proud” to have placed third in the division cheer-off, Barrett said last week. This is the first time in seven years the Termites have moved into the championship round. Last year they were dead last in the divisional.

“They are so ready,” Barrett said. “You know when people say there’s blood, sweat and tears? They’re not kidding. Plenty of times there’s tears. And one always ends up bleeding. We put a lot of hard work into it. I have pushed them very hard. They’ve definitely earned where they’re at.

“I had a girl come up to me Monday (Sept. 25) and say, Coach Liz, thanks for pushing us, we couldn’t have done this without you. They’re starting to realize that if you want something, you have to work for it. These girls want to learn. They want to try.”

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