By Anthony Jones
Alumni from the same high school crossing paths during athletic competition in college is not by any means unheard of. But when they meet up at a National Championship event as top finishers, that’s a much different case. Yet that is exactly what happened early this month for four different Triad alumni at the Cheerleading National Championships.
Two of the four alumni compete for Oklahoma State. Both graduates from Triad in 2018, Drew Herter and Tyler Rehg have found great success in their cheer careers. At the last National Championships, Rehg was part of a squad that won Nationals and Herter took part in a third place routine.
Rehg said of winning back to back years,“(It) is an absolutely amazing feeling. It’s crazy to think that I have been a part of two amazing teams that have been able to win against great competition in schools like the University of Louisville and Texas Tech.”
Even as a team coming off of the pinnacle of success, Herter explained the path wasn’t easy, “One of the keys that helped this team win this year was our ability to improvise and adapt to our situations with Covid. We used to have a cheer gym that we practiced at pre-Covid and they had to close their doors forever so we had spent several months over the summer trying to find a place that we could practice. When we finally got to school, we found out we would be practicing on the indoor practice football field, and outside in the football stadium. This made it very difficult to practice as we normally practice on 9 of our cheer mats, but we made it work. We eventually found a small dance studio in town that only held 8 mats instead of the 9 we compete on, as well as one day a week we all had to drive 30 minutes out of town to go to an elementary school in Perry, Oklahoma where we could fit all 9 mats.”
Cheering for Lindenwood, Monica Jenkins of the class of 2016 was another Triad Alumni crowned as a National Champion at the recent event. Lindenwood had been a successful team in recent years, but they could not quite get the extra push to take home the crown. In 2017 and 2018 the team finished in second and last year the event was cancelled.
“It feels amazing to be able to finally become a national champion. The past 3 years have been heartbreaking between getting second place two years in a row and then COVID happening. Our biggest goal each year is to go onto the bandshell and show the judges and everyone else our skills and how well Lindenwood is regardless of the place we end up in.” Jenkins said of the team heading into this year’s championship. “I believe having a mindset of being the best we can be and letting the rest be up to the judges has really helped bring our team together. The best thing about our team is the family aspect that we have each year, no matter how many people leave and how many come in. If we were not a family and worked so well together we would have never been able to accomplish what we have in the past.”
The fourth former Knight to have her team at the top of the list was Lydia Blaies. A cheerleader for SIUE, her team may not have had quite the pedigree of Lindenwood or Oklahoma State. But that certainly didn’t show when they hit the floor.
The Cougars put on the best performance in their program history, earning them their first ever zero deduction routine. The team also placed second overall, their best finish ever.
Blaies spoke on the monumental day for the team and what made it possible, “Being a part of a team to make history at SIUE is unbelievable and I am extremely lucky to be a part of a team with such amazing women. Everyone worked so hard in the few short months we had to get a team together and put a routine together. An amazing quality that the team had that made it possible to do well was the dedication to each other and cheerleading as a whole. Another quality was the ability to be a team member and have a bond as a team as a whole.”
When asked what made the success of four different Triad Alumni in such a short span so successful all of their answers had one thing in common: their high school coach Heather Kirkley.
She was described by Blaies as, “(Kirkley) is an amazing woman that produced amazing cheerleaders and hardworking adults.”
“Heather Kirkley was my cheer coach all four years at Triad and she meant business when it came time to practice. It was pretty simple, she wanted us to come into practice and do the best that we can and she was going to help us no matter what. Kirkley cheered in college as well and I thought that was amazing and had never really thought that I could do the same but I knew she believed in me and that made me believe in myself.” Jenkins said of her high school coach.
Rehg spoke on her role by commenting “I think a big part of it though is the teams and atmosphere coach Kirkley was able to build in her time as the Head cheer coach at Triad. Coach Kirkley was one of those coaches that knew how to build a family feeling and still bring out the best in her athletes. I feel like her coaching style and personality made a lot of us realize that if we wanted to cheer at the next level, then we would want to go to a team that is very similar to the ones she built. That’s actually what made Drew and I want to come to Oklahoma State.”
Herter echoed the role of their coaches by saying, “None of us would be where we are in college cheer without the foundations of hard work built in us by Heather Kirkley, Kelly Sollberger, David Vande Velde, Marco Zomphier, Kristee Leigh, and Peyton Freschi. We all worked as hard as we could in high school in hopes of maybe continuing on someday. And as soon as I knew I could go to college for cheer it was all gas no brakes because I thought it would be the coolest thing. And boy was I right, I have met people and had experiences I had never even dreamed about when I first started cheer just to learn how to do a backflip.”