Cheerleaders take center stage

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Bernae Morgan loves flying through the air for the Plantation Pride's Senior Division cheerleading team.

Morgan, 14, is thrown straight up and then caught by her teammates as part of various stunts. The Lauderdale Lakes resident says it can get a little scary, but after 10 years of cheerleading with many of the same girls, there's a trust there.

Morgan and her Pride teammates were among the nearly 650 participants in the recent Florida Cheer and Dance Association Sizzler competition at the Coral Springs Gymnasium.

The Plantation squad came away with top honors in its division. The event also featured a junior varsity performance by Somerset Academy from Miramar.

"It is interesting," said Morgan, a freshman at Nova High School in Davie, of her high-flying escapades. "It is just a matter of trust and knowing that the people who are supposed to catch you are going to catch you. You have to have confidence. It's just fun. I just love it."

Teammate Brenna Covel, 17, of Sunrise, said the Pride relies on its camaraderie and experience. The team practices three times a week.

"I wouldn't say there is a lot of pressure here because the girls have been together for a long time and you know what to expect," said Covel, a senior at American Heritage School in Plantation. "We have a lot of chemistry together. We are like a big family. We hang around together. We have so much fun together at these competitions."

Teammate Allie Barnard, 15, said cheerleading is a pretty difficult sport.

"The practices get more stressful and more difficult when the competitions are getting closer," said Barnard, a freshman at Cooper City High School. "There are a lot of distractions, and we try to help each other out. … It is definitely rewarding when you get a good score because you feel like your hard work paid off. Win or lose, I am proud of what I did on the floor, and that is all that matters to me."

Florida Cheer and Dance Association President Zach Chernoch, who has guided the group since 2003, said that about 15 competitions are offered each year around the state.

The Coral Springs competition was a state qualifier for the Florida Cheer and Dance Association State Championships taking place in Miami on April 25.

There were different divisions based on age and skill levels. The Sizzler competition featured everything from small teams to individual stunts and tumbling.

American Heritage School of Plantation also fielded a team. That squad is led by first-year coach Vanessa Necolettos.

"I love this group of girls," Necolettos said. "They have so much energy, and they really put forth more effort than I probably would have at their age. They put forth 110 percent effort."

Necolettos said the Patriots' cheerleaders get fired up whenever they can match their talents against other squads.

"They see other competitive cheerleading teams, and I think they are excited by that and it really motivates them," Necolettos said. " … The girls like (the competitions) because they get to go out and showcase their talent and what they have worked hard for. We like to win, but it is not important to win."

American Heritage sophomore Sabrina Lessner, 15, is one of the team's captains and has been cheerleading since the seventh grade.

"I really love to be with my teammates and be with my friends and just get away and have fun," Lessner said. "We all go out there and try our best."

Winning is a bonus, Lessner said.

"When you do win, it is a crazy amazing feeling to know you worked so hard and you have done so well," Lessner said.

Another Patriots' captain is Jenna Warner, 15, also a sophomore. She has been cheerleading since the fifth grade.

"I think it is important to do well in all competitions — some are more for the experience, when others are more for the title," Warner said. "Doing well in competitions makes everyone happy and shows how hard we have been working and that we accomplished what we meant to."

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