Panthers cheerleading grabs first state title, looks to carry momentum into nationals

The Daviess County cheerleading program continued to build on their recent success last weekend as they captured their first state championship in school history with their Game Day performance.

The Lady Panthers scored 98.3 on the day to seal the victory, earning a perfect score to become the top team in the Commonwealth. They knew they had done it too, because they erupted with enthusiasm when their performance came to an end.

“It was great, it was by far the best performance we’ve had all year,” head coach Kitty Jones said. “I lead the music for our routine, so I’m stuck watching her from the sidelines most of the time. I had a feeling based on the energy level, but coaches Sally Ward and Tracy Gutsche confirmed it as they jumped to their feet at the end of the performance. And the girls knew it, because afterwards we were all crying backstage in celebration and as the coaches told them, regardless of the results, they really made it.”

Jones said they set the tone the week before the competition with a big pep talk about what it takes to win, including effort and focus during the training week, tightening up the movement and adding spirit to any dead spots. She said the girls helped solve problems, made suggestions and applied feedback when it was given and ultimately led them to victory.

“The girls came out on the mat with confidence and energy,” Jones said. “There will be some things that we’ll tweak as we head into the nationals, like a few placement areas.”

Daviess County also won state by a full point, with Woodford County earning second place with 97.20 and Knox Central in third with 95.20. This state championship is the first for Daviess County fans, after finishing as runner-up the last two seasons, as well as in 2014 and 2015.

Jones said winning this title is special for the program, but especially for the seniors who have fallen off in recent years. She said the senior class was instrumental in helping build the team throughout the season to get to this point, while also giving credit to the team as a whole for handling adversity well.

“They did this together,” Jones said. “From the seniors who set expectations and trust the coaches’ decisions, to the freshmen and alternates who work hard to develop the skills needed to succeed. Junior, Keeli Johnson, was extremely ill most of the week leading up to Friday and is front and center for the entire routine. A decision had to be made whether or not to keep it or replace it with a substitute for fear of it falling out during the routine. The decision was made only on the second warm-up mat that she could do it and endure. Her possible replacement, sophomore Kaylee Alexander, watched videos all day to prepare and did her first toe-touch after knee surgery backstage, ready to step in if Keeli decided she couldn’t make it. Overall, the whole team brought it all to the mat and knew it when they came out.”

Jones continued, saying her upperclassmen and coaching staff made the monster postseason victory possible. The Panthers are still in another long postseason, proud of what they’ve built and looking forward to the Nationals.

“The recent success of this program did not happen overnight,” Jones said. “It started with the high school seniors who graduated in 2021 and were part of the construction process when they were freshmen. They deserve credit for starting the initial movement of developing our Game Day. My other coaches, Tracy Gutsche and Sally Ward are outstanding, each bringing a different perspective needed to make things work. This could not have happened without them, or the support of our Panther family.”

Jones also wanted to highlight the success of other local cheerleading programs, saying she was proud of the Western Kentucky cheerleading program’s representation at a state level that is usually dominated by Eastern Kentucky.

“OHS had a great performance combining their teams for the first time competing as one at the state level placing eighth, Apollo came close in an extremely tough division coming in fifth just shy of fourth to four other teams from Western Kentucky and our friends in Bowling Green also won the state title in their division,” Jones said. “Western Kentucky cheerleading is definitely on the radar and it’s exciting.”

Jones and company have been more than happy with how they’ve competed this year, beating division opponents with ease all season. And as long as they can keep their energy up and continue to prepare well, the Panthers feel like they can make some noise at nationals as well.

“This year has been great as we have gone undefeated in this division in every competition,” Jones said. “The girls have worked hard to set higher standards among themselves and to hold each other accountable. This was a challenge at times as we really focused on a team mindset versus individuals hitting their targets. Going into the state championships as the Kentucky state champion is big. We will need to maintain focus and clean up throughout January in order to meet our goal of being a national contender. With the level of focus and commitment they’ve had over the past few weeks leading up to the state, anything is possible.”

But before they try to make some noise and bring home some more hardware, Panther nation will get a chance to do so in support of them, with the high school holding a spirit walk on Wednesday, Dec. 14, honoring the cheerleaders and dance team for results achieved in the season.

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