As Pisgah High School’s varsity cheer squad walked off the stage after its final performance at the state championships in Raleigh in December, the Bears weren’t sure how their routine would stack up.

“This year was a struggle. We got off that stage expecting to not do the best,” PHS senior captain Sarah Arrowood said.

The Bears waited anxiously as the results from the judges were announced. When Triton High School was named third-place winners, Pisgah’s team looked at each other and thought ‘well, second place is okay, we guess.’

But when second place was awarded to Southern Nash, the Bears realized that there had either been a mistake, or that they were indeed state champions.

Head Coach Morgan Smith, a Pisgah cheer alum herself, never had any doubt. On the day of the competition, she kept telling her team what she’d been telling them all along: that if they went out there and executed their routine, they’d win.

Apparently, Smith knew her team could pull it off before the team knew it.

“It was an uphill battle. It was such a mental thing,” Arrowood said. “We got in our heads like two weeks before. We’d run the routine over and just do worse and worse.”

“She kept telling us we could do it and we went down there and we did it,” senior captain Sydney Messer said. “So I think Morgan knows what we’re capable of.”

The Bears won first place in the Large Varsity Non-Tumble D1 division with a score of 65.8, beating out Southern Nash (62.8) and Triton (61).

“It was a very emotional win, because like they said, they had a very bad mental block,” Smith said. “I knew, and I kept telling them, ‘you can do this. It is possible and I know you can do it.’ So to see them do it and to win, I was speechless. I just hit the ground and I cried.”

The championship marks the third in four years after Pisgah went back-to-back in 2018 and 2019. The Bears opted not to participate in 2020’s virtual competition. It’s the fourth state title in program history with the first coming in 2012.

Smith was elevated to head coach of the varsity team in 2020 after working with the JV squad for a year before that, making the 2021 state competition her first one as head coach.

“It felt the best because it’s Morgan’s first year and it’s our last year doing this. It was really special. I know it meant a lot to her to come out on top,” said Mikalah Fish-McCall, a senior captain.

Smith graduated from Pisgah in 2011 after helping the softball team win a state championship that year.

“Morgan is younger, so she’s definitely more like one of us when she’s with us. She’ll gossip and she’ll talk and be more of like an older sister, but she’s still our coach,” Arrowood said. “So there’s definitely that respect, but there’s also that bond.”

That bond was on full display when the team rushed over to their coach to celebrate with her immediately after finding out they were the champions.

“What made it even more special is instead of the girls celebrating together, they all came to me,” Smith said. “That just showed how they feel towards me as a coach. Coaching teenage girls can be brutal, so it was definitely a blessing to be there and do that with my team and finish the legacy.”

Smith admitted that she felt a lot of pressure to continue the successful ways of longtime varsity head coach Tammy Ensley, who Smith cheered for in high school and who guided Pisgah to state titles in 2012, 2018 and 2019.

“Going against back-to-back state championships, I had a lot of pressure that I put on myself,” Smith said. “Nobody else put that pressure on me, but I wanted to live up to that reputation, so I was pretty pumped and proud of myself.”

Ensley retired before the 2020 season but stepped up to fill the JV position this year after the job opened up unexpectedly. Ensley led the JV squad to a strong performance at the state championships, too, as the Bears finished third out of seven in the JV Non-Tumble D1 division.

“Their routine was flawless. They did a great job. They competed against teams that were bigger than them and teams that had guys, which is a completely different ballgame,” Smith said. “So for them to come out at third, that was a really big deal. I’m super excited to see how those girls do when they move up to my team.”

Being forced to deal with all the uncertainties the pandemic created made 2020 an especially rough season to be taking over as a first-year cheer head coach. Not being able to practice as much or as effectively because of protocols made it harder to learn routines.

The Bears also have to work with what they have when it comes to practices. Since Pisgah’s volleyball and basketball teams usually practice in the gym, the cheer teams are usually outside in the elements. Despite it all, the Bears kept working and stuck together.

“It has definitely brought us together as a team. We are very, very close teammates and that really helped,” Arrowood said.

Pisgah varsity cheer roster:

Sydney Messer (captain), Sarah Arrowood (captain), Mikalah Fish-McCall (captain), Kaitlyn Rogers, Bryannah Mendoza, Ansley Rhinehart, Lily Turner, Lexi Messer, Sasha Ledford, Cadence Rollins, Aireal McElreath, Kaley Patterson, Jasmine Milling, Sentilina Galyon, Laenice Southers, Aly Essig, Emeri Wright, Morgan Plemmons, Savannah Garnes, Shannon Lafferty, Marla Curry, Jada Coker, Maddyx Woodard.

Pisgah JV cheer roster: Adrianna Waddell (captain), Anna Southers (captain), Reese Silver (captain), Ana Eckhoff, Avery Ponder, Mischa Deese, Payton Lipe, Annalee Pinkerton, McKinley Rhinehart, Madison Morrow, India Warren, Chloe Allison, Cayley Gibson, Alysea Cagle, Alexis Glavich, Angela Bui, Addison Sutton, Destani Garcia, Savannah Dickerson, Mollie Webb.

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