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Wednesday, May 20, 2009 04:42 pm

Putting the leader in cheerleader

At Lanphier High, three brave boys add fresh bounce to the rah-rah squad

Zach Kniery, Chip Gronau and Delaunte Austin are varsity cheerleaders at Lanphier High School.

You’ve seen these guys before. OK, maybe not this specific trifecta of testosterone, but you’ve undoubtedly seen guys just like them, clowning around on the sidelines at the football game, one eye on the game, another on the girls in the matching short skirts. They’re the kind of guys who prance along with the cheerleaders, not exactly mocking them but not showing any reverence either, that’s for sure.

“We knew most of the junior varsity cheerleading team, so when they would do cheers, we would try to mimic them, or make up our own cheers,” Zach Kniery says. “We were having fun with them.”

“We were trying to get them to laugh and break focus,” Chip Gronau says.

Their antics caught the eye of Lanphier High School cheerleading coach Danielle Outlaw, who told them that if they enjoyed entertaining from the sidelines so much, maybe they should try out for the cheerleading squad. The boys assumed that Outlaw was joking. “Then she asked us a second time,” Zach says, “and we realized she was serious.”

In the middle of the 2008-09 school year, just before basketball season, some vacancies opened up on the cheerleading team, and Outlaw held an open tryout. Chip, Zach, and Zach’s brother Alex showed up, tried out, and made the squad — sending the LHS student body into a seizure.

“At first people were shocked at boys being on the squad,” says Krista Burris, currently co-captain of the cheerleaders. “Even the basketball players weren’t too into that idea.”

“A lot of people made assumptions, like ‘Oh, if they’re cheerleaders, they must be gay,’ ” says Erica Sauer, the other co-captain of the squad. “But there’s nothing gay about wanting to support your team.”

The three boys didn’t worry about peanut gallery postulation. “That was only the people who didn’t know us,” Zach says. “We do other sports, and people know us for that.”

All three run track and compete in cross-country; Zach even qualified for sectionals. Alex quit the cheerleading squad at the end of last season in order to try out for basketball and boxing, but at the tryout for the 2009-10 cheerleading squad, another cross-country runner, Delaunte Austin, showed up and made the team.

Outlaw didn’t worry much about the boys’ poise. “These guys aren’t pushover kinda guys,” she says. “They’re friends, they’re athletes, and they’re pretty confident in their own skin.”

Instead, Outlaw and some of the girls worried about whether they would bring the right attitude to the cheerleading team.

“I thought they were going to goof off and do it as a joke,” Erica says, “but they came to the practices and they really worked hard and tried to do everything the right way.”

Outlaw put the guys to work doing stunts — lifting and holding and catching the “flyers” — which obviously capitalized on the boys’ muscle mass. But they learned there was more to cheerleading than brute strength.

“We’re supposed to let them down, and I didn’t know how we were supposed to do that,” Chip says. “So I’d hold them in the air forever.”

Even tougher, for these guys, is learning the complicated choreography and synchronizing it to the words for every cheer. They find themselves practicing at home, in front of the mirror. “I thought eh, it doesn’t look that hard. But when you actually do it, it’s more difficult,” Zach says. “People who don’t know cheerleading don’t really understand it, but in cheerleading, you have to be precise and sharp.”

“If you’re a complete beginner and start doing it at the normal level for varsity cheerleaders, it’s a big difference,” Chip says.

Outlaw says most of the girls on the squad have been cheerleading since childhood, and innately know the difference between a banana and a basket toss. They never even have to think about which way their fists face or whether their feet should flex or point. The boys, on the other hand, have to teach their bodies a whole new language.

“Not only do they have to learn the motions, they have to learn how to do the motions properly,” she says.

The guys perform in athletic polo shirts and use megaphones, instead of pompons, to add a masculine touch to their cheers. Outlaw works with them to modify every routine into something suitably macho, with no prissy poses or feminine flourishes. “There’s no shaking your tailfeathers,” Delaunte says.

Their female teammates are thrilled with the results. Having boys on the squad doesn’t just give them the ability to do bigger, better stunts; these guys help carry their luggage on bus trips, and even provide brotherly advice. “They’re sweethearts, and they’re a wonderful aspect of the team,” Erica says.

The boys know they have the real prospect of financial rewards down the road, in the form of college scholarships that are easier to come by for male cheerleaders than female. And in the meantime, cheerleading hasn’t hurt their social life. Zach and Delaunte each have a girlfriend — not, they say, anyone on the squad. And Chip, well, Chip recently went to the prom by himself, for safety reasons.

“If he went with one girl,” Zach says, “a bunch of other girls would’ve been mad at him.”

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