Questions swirl at La Jolla High School after the cheer coach was fired

La Jolla High School’s competitive cheer team is on the sidelines at least until the school finds a new coach after firing the team’s two coaches last week in a move that surprised many, including the coaches.

Coach Elsie Lopez, who had led La Jolla High School’s cheer teams since 2019 and works in the school’s office as its attendance clerk, was let go by Principal Chuck Podhorsky and Vice Principal Joe Cavaiola on Nov. 4.

Delia Lopez, Elsie’s mother and the school’s registrar, was fired as assistant cheer coach.

Both are staying on in their other school jobs and said they have not received any indication that they will be let go from those jobs.

Delia Lopez said no reason was given for their dismissal as coaches, other than that administrators “were going to take the cheer program in a different direction.”

In a Nov. 5 email to the team’s parents, Podhorsky said the school “has decided to make a change in the leadership of the La Jolla High School cheer program, effective immediately.”

“Due to insufficient funds and vacancies, we are unable to proceed with our LJHS competitive cheer program at this time,” the email added. “We hope to let the student-athletes continue the fun on the sidelines for the remainder of the winter season (under different leadership) as we work to fill this vacancy.”

Podhorsky told the La Jolla Light that he cannot comment on personnel matters but added that the administrative team “is in the process of bringing in new coaches for the LJHS Sideline Cheer Club and competitive cheer team.”

“We look forward to filling the vacant seat as soon as we find the best candidate,” he said.

The coaches’ dismissal came after an investigation in which the Lopezes were repeatedly called into meetings with administrators, Elsie said. The meetings were held with each coach separately.

“We were asked uncomfortable questions,” said Delia Lopez, such as whether the coaches had taken the cheerleaders to their house or taken money from them.

The two coaches said they answered ‘no’ to those questions saying they had never behaved inappropriately with any of the team members.

“We don’t handle the money,” added Elsie Lopez.

She said she would like to know specifically why she was removed from there. “If we don’t know why we’re being dropped, how can we [know] what to improve?” she said.

Tami Renteria, whose daughter Giavana is a senior on the cheer team, said she was worried about the coaches being fired and the competitive season being canceled, which is important for CIF recognition.

Scouts attend cheerleading competitions, Renteria said, which can mean college scholarships for the students.

“Our girls train all year as athletes to compete,” she said.

Questions remain about the fate of La Jolla High School’s competitive cheerleading team.

Renteria, who serves as the team’s mom, said the parents and cheerleaders also weren’t given a reason to fire the Lopezes other than administrators “decided to go in a different direction.”

She said she never had problems with the coaches in the three years she was a team mom, and she disagreed with Podhorsky’s statement about insufficient funds.

However, he said, when the coaches and parents had a meeting in October to go over the season schedule, three or four parents started yelling at the coaches with complaints about Elsie Lopez’s communication and coaching style. Renteria didn’t see those things as problems, he said.

“We have a very structured program,” said Delia Lopez. “We encourage our cheerleaders to be students first. Elsie has a handbook that parents sign and agree to” for their daughters to participate that outlines rules on tardiness, communication, academic expectations and campus representation.

The handbook is based on national guidelines for cheerleading behavior and CIF guidelines for academics, Elsie Lopez said.

Renteria said it appears to her that the October meeting led to the investigation and that she feels “only certain voices are being heard.”

Of the 18 families on the cheer squad, the school did not contact more than those who complained, Renteria said, and only spoke to a handful of the girls on the team.

The parents of the other members of the team, citing fear of retaliation against their children, were reluctant to give their names to the Light or share the names of parents who complained.

The Lopezes “changed our girls’ lives academically and… otherwise,” Renteria said. The decision to remove them as coaches is “heartbreaking. It’s like our voices don’t matter,” he said.

Delia Lopez said that “having your girls come hug you and cry is devastating.”

She said she and her daughter have worked hard to create a culture “to love sport and do it well.”

Elsie Lopez, who has more than 10 years of cheer coaching experience, said she would like to see this year’s team compete.

Giavana Renteria, a member of the team since ninth grade, would like that too.

“Being on competitive cheer, I get to be an athlete,” he said. “I want to be part of an athletic team. Regardless of the result, you’re proud of all the hard work you’ve put in for months.”

He said the decision to pull the coaches “affects me mentally, emotionally [and] physically. … Our coaches deserve so much better for all the things they’ve done.”

Giavana attends LJHS from her City Heights neighborhood; her mother works at UC San Diego in La Jolla.

Giavana said she was nervous at first in La Jolla, but “being cheerful connected the dots.”

No competitions means no potential for fun scholarships, he said. “That has been stolen from us.”

She would like to know what happened with the coaches. Lack of information “causes more conflict,” he said. ◆

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