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By Zach Cavanagh

It’s a spin on an old philosophical phrase.

“Who cheers the cheerleaders?”

The question is being asked for the first time at San Clemente High School as the Tritons field their first CIF competitive cheer teams, the first in the Capistrano Unified School District.

“It’s been years in the process,” San Clemente cheer coach Amber Smith said. “Cheer has gone through a restructuring to be a Title IX sport. STUNT (competitive sport cheer) was created to be Title IX and to give colleges more opportunities to balance out male and female scholarship numbers.”

This restructuring to create a head-to-head stunt cheer game has morphed a school activity into a between-the-lines competition not unlike the others they had previously rooted for on the sidelines.

“I have seen a competitive spirit in the girls I have never seen before,” Smith said. “I wouldn’t say aggression, but you get on the mat and really want to beat the other team. It’s not something you see on a normal basis. When we’re cheering on the sideline, there’s really no goal. Now there’s a competitive fire.”

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Traditional sideline cheer is labeled as a school activity, not a sport.

Competitive cheer at the high school level entered California with the signing of a 2015 bill by then-Governor Jerry Brown that made cheer a sport. The bill was created by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who said the measure “ensured these athletes will earn the respect and have the safety standards they deserve.”

The bill gave CIF, the California Interscholastic Federation, 18 months to create guidelines, procedures and safety standards by the 2017-18 season. Cheer officially became a CIF sport for the 2017-18 season, and the CIF-Southern Section, of which San Clemente is a member, created its own competitions for the 2018-19 season.

For CIF, cheer is split into two disciplines: traditional competitive cheer and competitive sport cheer, known by most in the sport as “STUNT.” CIF-SS held its first traditional competitive cheer championships on Jan. 11-12, and San Clemente finished third in the Division 2A rankings.

Traditional competitive cheer is what most people think of as your regular cheerleading competition. Teams perform a variety of routines of their own design, and judges award scores and points to determine an ultimate winner.

STUNT, a spring-season sport, has been structured into a game format.

Each game consists of four quarters with a halftime and a pre-game coin toss to determine “possession.” In STUNT, possession determines who chooses the routines performed. Each quarter showcases a different discipline, with partner stunts in the first quarter, pyramids and tosses in the second quarter, jumps and tumbling in the third quarter and a team performance in the fourth quarter.

Ahead of a game, competing teams are given the same set of routines to learn, practice and perform. In the game, the teams perform the routine at the same time. A pair of officials in the stands look for deductions and score the teams through the game.

“Traditional competitive cheer is completely subjective,” Smith said. “Every team is doing something completely different. In STUNT, every team is doing the same routine. Over the course of an hour, you can see who’s doing better through the match. It’s really spectator-friendly.”

Like any other team sport, there are wins, losses, league standings and playoffs.

San Clemente is 2-2 on the season. The Tritons opened with home wins over Crean Lutheran and La Quinta on March 12, but following some injuries, San Clemente dropped its next two at home to Costa Mesa and Godinez on Monday, March 25.

San Clemente is next in action on April 8 at Godinez against the host Grizzlies and La Quinta.

The Tritons are members of the six-team Orange Coast League, where they play each team twice. Once the league schedule is completed, there is a CIF-SS playoff on April 27 and a CIF State playoff on May 6.

Winning is always a goal, but for a program in its first year, San Clemente’s first goal is building the sport on campus.

“I would like to see the roster size grow and raise some awareness and recognition,” Smith said. “Program-wise, we have some funding shortcomings to work with. We have mats, and we should have 11, but we only have nine. And we have to move them from upper campus to the gym for each game.”

Smith said the cheer program is self-funded, and its administrative things like that that CIF recognition have added to the job.

“That’s definitely a struggle,” Smith said. “We have to budget and always had fundraisers, but this year we had to start from scratch.”

Recognition that cheer is now a school sport like any other can be tough to come by with decades of sideline cheer stereotypes stuck in people’s heads.

“I tried to excuse a girl from class for a game early,” Smith said, “and the teacher said, ‘That’s not a thing.’ Right now, it’s about introducing it to people. It’s about building the program.”

As the program builds, there’s another new avenue for students to become on-campus athletes, pursue college opportunities and showcase their spirit.

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