UNITED STATES – The Senior Small All Girl 5 division has developed its own unique identity.  An identity with headliners like Cheer Extreme SSX from Raleigh, NC, Woodlands Elite Generals from The Woodlands, TX, and ICE Lady Lightning from Aurora, IL.  Each of these three powerhouse all girl teams have the experience, endurance, showmanship, and elite level skills required to be a World Championship team.  

CHEER EXTREME SSX, 2016 Senior Small All Girl World Champions

Coaches: Kelly Helton, Chase Burris, Cullen Hodges

“Preparing the team to compete against these other incredible programs is like preparing for a football game.” says Helton of her Small Senior X team.  Competing against the most consistent competitors year after year, she says, has enabled her team to hone in on what they are good at, while pushing harder in the areas where they need to get better or closer to their competitors.  Helton says, “skill and numbers wise we have the best roster we have ever had.”   The 2016 Senior Small All Girl 5 team from Raleigh, NC are no strangers to competing at the highest level.  Helton says of her team some 80% of them have been on the team, or in her program for many seasons “they want to win so badly” she adds.  The coach says that she trains every season as if they have never won The Cheerleading Worlds before, adding “I didn’t wear my Worlds Ring at all this season, as a reminder that we have to do this again.”

Helton says of her competitors, “they keep me motivated, they continue to make me better because they get better.”  Most admirably Helton says of ICE Lady Lightning coach Darlene Fanning, “she does an incredible job of staying relevant, and connecting with her athletes.  She is hip, she is trendy, she is cool.”  Laughing Helton speaks of the addition of Coach Cullen Hodges to her coaching staff to resonate with the team adding, “to them I was a mom.”  The team has had a strong and successful 2017/2018 competition season winning: NCA All Star Nationals (their first win ever in a Senior 5 division), and CHEERSPORT Nationals in Atlanta.  Helton says she’s most impressed with her athletes abilities to rise to meet the expectations of competition.  She adds, “20% of our athletes are brand-new to the team.”  Her greatest challenge this season was maturing and teaching athletes to not only execute skills, but perform throughout doing them.  Often she says, teams find it hard to strike a balance of personality, coupled with flawless technique because of the immense amount of focus it takes to execute difficult skills with precision.

Helton reminds us in closing, “a team on paper is extremely different then how it comes together in real-life.”  She says the difference is in how you guide them, how you overcome adversity or challenges, how resilient your athletes are.  Helton says her team looks forward to, and has enjoyed the fan-factor this season adding, “they thrive on the reaction from the crowd.. it is everything to them.”

WOODLANDS ELITE GENERALS, 2015 Senior Small All Girl World Champions

Coaches: Kevin Tonner, Matt Kelly, Tara Kirby

“I’ve always made Generals a student of the sport.” Tonner says, of the behind the scenes preparations for competitions.  He explained the team participates in video sessions, where they study their own footage in addition to the footage of competitors for upcoming events.  “They know what the other teams are doing, and they use it to stay motivated.  We know that we have to do better, or be equal across multiple categories on the scoresheet.”

Tonner explains how he has instilled a mathematical approach to the scoresheet with his athletes and their parents from the onset of the season. “We isolate the categories that we have to win.”  The coaching staff has trained the team to achieve such a high-level of success, “they have bought into what we’re saying” adds Tonner.

Looking back at the 2017 World Championship, where the Generals were assessed a legality in Finals for an early release in an inverted skill.  The team finished for the second year in a row, on the Silver Medal podium.  Tonner elaborates that they could of chose to blame the scoring, or deductions judge like is so easily done when the outcome is less than desirable.  But he says, “we work to hold ourselves accountable.”  Tonner now describes their enhanced approach to ensuring skill legality verification as being extensive.  He adds that the entire program has learned from that devastating mistake, saying “it’s something that we have eliminated from being an issue at Woodlands Elite across all teams, in all levels.”

Looking forward to the 2018 Cheerleading World Championships, Tonner says of the event “you have to be perfect to win Worlds, if you’re not perfect.. don’t expect to win.”  Reflecting back on the 2016 event, where the team had deductions in the Semi-Final round of the event, juxtaposed against the two zero deduction routines from Cheer Extreme, he adds “they hit both days, they deserved to win.”  Tonner reminds the team going into the elimination style event that putting yourself in position on Day 1 is one of the most important things you can do.  “If you’re coming from behind, it often doesn’t work out. You can’t hope someone makes a mistake to give yourself an easier path.” says Tonner.

Tonner admires the level of intensity that his top competitors put on him and his team to prepare year after year.  He credits their attention to detail, perfection, and skill set to pushing his Generals to compete at the highest level.  Tonner talks of his competitors by adding, “Kelly and I are very similar in the fact that be both want to win every time. While Shannon’s approach is to get continually better each time prepared to peak at Worlds.” At the end of the day Tonner describes the tone between the three powerhouse teams who have dominated the division for over half a decade as mature, and professional.  He directly attributes their relationship with competitors to the fact that each of the three know what it takes to be the best.

 ICE LADY LIGHTNING, 2014 and 2017 Senior Small All Girl World Champions

Coaches: Darlene Fanning, Shannon Young, Brittani Vaughn

“My philosophy is you always have to stay relevant.  You don’t always have to win, sometimes you’re just not going to be the best team on the floor that weekend.”  says Coach Darlene Fanning of the strategy that goes into positioning her team for success at some of cheerleading’s biggest events.  Fanning says just like every Level 5 coach, “I want to win worlds, just as much as everyone.”  She elaborates that more than winning she truly values what her athletes have learned over the course of a season under her leadership.  “Who they are as humans, with a hit or a deduction doesn’t change.  I still loved coaching them.” says Fanning of the greater picture taken from the overall experience.  “Hitting is great, winning is great… but I still remain committed to making them feel good about themselves regardless of the outcome” she adds.

Discussing how to get athletes to mentally, and physically “buy in” to the commitment that it takes to compete at the top level every year, Fanning says “you have to make them love you”.  When questioned about how to get them to that level of respect, she adds “you have to love them first.”  She describes her relationship with her athletes as one of seeking constant approval, “they never want to do something bad for me.”  but more importantly, Fanning continues “you have to get them to care about their teammates, to get them to a point where they’re doing it for each other, and not just for themselves.”

Going into the 2018 Cheerleading World Championships, Fanning says of her team “we don’t focus on being returning World Champions.”  Should the team win in 2018, they will become the first Senior All Girl Small to go back-to-back in the divisions since The Stingray All Stars Orange dominated the division with back to back wins in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, and another win in 2012. Fanning talks of the teams greatest challenges over the course of season as being “maturing athletes to meet the expectation of the division.”  Coming into The 2018 World Championships, their focus is to hit their best routine says Fanning of Lady Lightning.  She describes the relationship with her competitors as being completely matured, “we all want to win, but at the same time we recognize that the other teams have talent capable of making them winners.”

Fanning offered one take-home piece of advice for coaches, advice that she’s taken herself in all the years of her success, “sometimes people try to add difficulty going into end of year events, and that’s why many times they find themselves not being perfect.  Many times through the season, I’m not perfect but we’re testing our difficulty.  By the end of the year, I know what they can and cannot do.  Do not add what you haven’t tested, and can’t guarantee will be perfect.”

The three powerhouses of Senior Small All Girl 5 will face off in a rematch that has played out multiple times over the last few seasons.  Each team is capable of pulling off a win at the 2018 Cheerleading World Championship, but one small mistake could have a devastating effect.  Lurking right behind the top three lays many more talented Senior Small All Girl 5 teams like Rain Athletics Aqua, California All Stars Lady  Bullets, Central Jersey All Star Bombshells, ICE Golden Girls, South Jersey Storm Lady Reign, Cheers & More Respect, and more each poised and ready to pounce at the opportunity to grab a spot on the podium.

Follow our Live! World Central coverage on www.cheerUPDATES.com.


Learn more about:

Woodlands Elite by visiting their website www.woodlandselite.com

Cheer Extreme by visiting their website www.cheerextremeraleigh.com

ICE All Stars by visiting their website www.icecheer.com