Helping them reach for stars

A cheerleading coach starts over at Sunlake High after building a power at Land O'Lakes.

By LISA BUIE, Times Staff Writer
Published August 24, 2007

They surrounded the heart-shaped granite headstone etched with the butterfly and the megaphone and shared memories of the smiling cheerleader pictured in the center, a girl with big brown eyes and perfect teeth.

It was a year ago that Zoe Rott, a junior varsity cheerleader at Land O'Lakes High School, collapsed at school and died.

Her parents, coaches and some squad members were there to mourn the death that was still fresh and talk about the happy times.

One woman in the group said nothing. She preferred to talk to Zoe in spirit.

But there was another reason for Pennye Garcia's silence. She doesn't like people to see her cry.

- - -

For five years, Garcia coached cheerleaders at Land O'Lakes High.

"She really was one of the first people at Land O'Lakes who really lobbied for cheerleading to be considered a sport," recalled former principal Max Ramos, who hired Garcia virtually on the spot after she called and asked for a job. "When I became a school administrator, it was more of a social thing. We didn't even call them coaches; we called them sponsors, just like a club."

But he said Garcia made it clear her squad was not "there to be eye candy."

She puts it this way: "I tell them if you're here for the skirt, then don't try out."

One thing Garcia lobbied for and got for the squad was its own locker room. The room was a storage area for the track team, but Garcia managed to get a shed to store the track equipment.

The squad put in a work day fixing up the room. Garcia and squad member Aubrey Teston designed and painted a mural of three Gators performing a stunt.

"It was a nice little bonding thing for us," Garcia said.

Former cheerleaders say Garcia pushes hard, but in the end they appreciated it.

"I don't want to say she's anal, but she's a perfectionist," said Brandi Hall, a 2007 graduate whom Garcia helped land a job at a cheerleading camp. She said Garcia would make them practice something "over and over again until it's absolutely perfect."

Despite her emphasis on skill, Garcia refuses to compromise when it comes to character. It's the first item mentioned as a characteristic of a cheerleader in the 11-page cheerleading constitution that Garcia gives to each girl at the beginning of the season.

Blow that requirement and you will not make the team. Period. And at tryouts, incumbents don't have a leg up.

"Everybody gets a clean slate," Garcia said.

No one knows that better than Hall, who didn't make the team her junior year. She did return her senior year. "My attitude was just not there," she said. "I knew I had the ability to make a varsity team, but I was just so big-headed."

Garcia lives and dies for cheerleading. She makes up routines whenever she's sitting still, which isn't often.

"I just close my eyes and see the pieces moving," she said.

- - -

Five years into her career at Land O'Lakes, Garcia basked in her accomplishments.

Top team at camp. First place, Best of Pasco. Third place, Universal Cheerleading Association Regional. First place, Florida Athletic Coaches Association. Nine cheerleaders named All-American. Fourth place, Florida State Fair. And one of her alums, Holly Sellers, made the Tampa Bay Buccaneers squad. Garcia thought she was just hitting her stride.

Then Sunlake High School opened. Garcia, who had the least seniority in the physical education department, would be reassigned to the new school.

She cried when she heard the news. She was going from a school that had a proud tradition to one that didn't even have a fight song yet. That's tough to take for a Louisiana Cajun (before she married, her last name was Provost) who made an A in her history of Louisiana course in college.

Her eyes still well up when she recalls leaving Land O'Lakes.

She always makes a DVD of each season, with a tribute to the seniors, and gives one to each girl. But this year's was especially bittersweet.

In script that crawls across the screen like the prologue of Star Wars, she wished them well. She signed it "love, Coach Garcia."

- - -

It's the week school starts, and Garcia has traded in her blue gold and white practice clothes for Sunlake teal, black and gold ones. All her Land O'Lakes awards sit on the floor of her new office, which still doesn't have a trash can. And she's irked that the uniforms have not come in.

Scattered among the Land O'Lakes certificates are a handful of Sunlake ones. The team got an award for its crisp motions at camp over the summer.

Garcia makes no apologies for hanging up both school's certificates.

"They're a part of who I am," she says.

The squad recently resumed practice after a three-week break and makes its debut tonight at a preseason game against Bishop McLaughlin.

That first post-camp practice was tough. Moves were sloppy. Concentration was off. Garcia spent a lot of time yelling and making the team repeat jumps and stunts. Once when the cheerleaders messed up especially badly, she made them run laps around the gym.

"What's wrong? I'm not going to tell you. You tell me," she barked after a stunt failed.

"We're out of shape," a girl offered weakly.

But despite all the yearning for that well-oiled machine that was Team Gator, Garcia gets a glint her eye when she talks about the Seahawks' future.

"I can only expect so much because they're young," she said. "But these kids are just as competitive as anyone else in the county.

"I told one mom to give me five years. If I've not created a good solid program in five years, then I blame myself."

Lisa Buie can be reached at (813) 909-4604 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4604. Her e-mail address is buie@sptimes.com