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Performing in the same arena where they were narrowly defeated for first place in 2010, Herndon High School’s varsity cheerleading team went to Richmond on Saturday determined to give this year’s story a better ending.

Herndon’s 24-member team did just that, winning their first-ever state championship by knocking off a talented Fairfax squad that had beaten the Hornets a week earlier at regionals.

“This win is really special to me because a couple years ago we got second place by a really narrow margin,” said Herndon senior captain Sarah Strangfeld, who was on the 2010 team that lost to Cosby High School at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Siegel Center.

“In the past four years, people have grown to respect [cheerleading]… In some schools, they don’t respect their cheerleaders, but in our school people really support us,” said Strangfeld, adding that the team’s recent rise to the top has altered the perception of cheerleading as a sport within the school.

“We’ve proven that it’s a sport. We’ve proven that we’re good at it,” she said.

Statewide, cheerleading has seen growth in students and schools participating as well as the level of athleticism, according to Virginia High School League, an alliance of Virginia’s public high schools that monitors sportsmanship and other student scholastic activities such as competitions.

Participation has risen from 4,839 students representing 209 schools during the 2008-09 school year to 5,197 students representing 221 schools in 2011-12, about a 9 percent jump. VHSL representatives said this year’s enrollment numbers are not yet available. Still, the sport has not reached competitive level at all of the about 315 high schools that are members of VHSL.

VHSL Assistant Director Joyce Sisson said, “[Cheerleading] becomes more athletic all the time… It’s a very athletic activity.”

She said high school communities often overlook the two faces of cheerleading. While cheerleaders are best known for sparking crowds at high school football games, the team shows its true talent on the mat.

“At football games, you usually just see us on the sideline chanting and that kind of thing. But when we’re at a competition, we have a serious face on,” Herndon junior Alex Coffelt said. Coffelt is one of three boys on the Herndon cheerleading team. Only about 25 male athletes competed in Saturday’s championship, according to VHSL.

“It’s a lot harder than it looks. It takes everything you have,” he said. “It’s tumbling and jumping. It’s much harder than just throwing a ball.”

And unlike the grit and grime of contact sports, cheerleading defines grit and grin, Herndon’s team said.

“It’s not just tumbling and stunting. You’re doing all that while smiling,” said junior captain Kara Joyce. “My freshman year was the first year anyone at the school had seen a cheer team do really well. They won districts and regionals that year. They saw that cheer is really competitive as opposed to just sideline cheering.”

This year, Herndon exceeded its own expectations, earning the second highest score ever for schools competing in the AAA bracket during the cheerleading competition.

“In 2007, Chantilly [High School] had the highest one ever — 281, and we got 280.5 [this year],” explained senior captain Hannah Moore. According to VHSL, many strong cheer teams have come from Northern Virginia, including Chantilly and Herndon in the AAA bracket and Loudoun County powerhouse Briar Woods High School, which won its fourth straight AA state title last week.

VHSL spokesman Mike McCall confirmed that higher scores had been recorded 20 or so years ago, but they came under a scoring method that was shifted in the 1990s.

Sission said, “280. That’s a high score. That’s almost a 90 percent on everything.” Cheerleading teams are judged in five categories: motions, jumps, tumbling, stunts and dance skills. In each category, a team can earn up to 15 points from each judge. Five judges watch the competition. The low and high scores out of the five are thrown out, leaving the middle three scores for the final calculation.

“The judges are people who are registered with VHSL as judges,” Sisson said. “They take a rules exam each year and they attend rules clinics [which are now offered online].”

Each of the state’s 12 regions advanced four cheerleading squads to the state championship. A first round elimination meant that only the top five teams qualified for the final round. Each of those teams started with a blank slate when competing in that final round.

“We knew we had hit a really good routine,” Moore said. “They announced third place and it wasn’t us. And I remember looking at my coach and thinking, ‘we must have tied or something.’ Then they announced Fairfax got second and our coaches started crying and we knew we’d won.”

The team’s victory coincides with the end of a nine-year coaching career at Herndon for Jenny Goff, who is retiring to take care of her infant son who was born the first week of cheerleading in August. The varsity cheerleading squad has six coaches, a high number that Goff attributes to the community’s high interest in the sport. Two other coaches — Suzanne Mansfield and Emma Collaie — are also leaving the team this year.

Goff graduated from Herndon High School in 2002 and was a cheer captain for the school. During her junior year of high school, Goff said her cheerleading squad went from worst in the district to advancing to regionals thanks to a good coach.

Goff said her goal was to give what she got from her coach.

“It’s been an amazing journey. I tell the team that they are my Cinderella story,” Goff said. “Here’s the cool thing about Herndon. I would say the best sport at Herndon is cheerleading and here they are the ones that cheer on other sports, but now they’re being cheered on.”