Cheerleaders return to gridiron with Ponies

Members of the Stillwater Ponies cheer team practice Aug. 23 in Pony Stadium. (Gazette staff photo by Jonathan Young)

When the Ponies take the field for the first football game of the season next week, Stillwater fans will see something they haven’t for several years: cheerleaders rooting for their team.

This year, 32 high school girls are part of a squad provided through the St. Croix Valley Athletic Association (SCVAA). Stillwater Area High School has approved the program, so participants can letter, and the team plans to cheer at every Ponies football game this season.

Julie Ligday, one of three coaches, said the idea came about after she attended a Ponies football game a few years ago.

“My reaction was, ‘Where’s the cheerleaders? … Where’s the marching band?’” said Ligday, who grew up in the South and married a Stillwater Area High School graduate. “In the South, that’s really born and bred in you. From the minute you can walk you start cheering.”

Ligday and her friend Angie Rowe, also from the South, approached Stillwater Area High School about starting a team a few years ago. When that didn’t work out, they asked the St. Croix Valley Athletic Association. In 2015, the pair successfully launched a youth cheer team through the SCVAA, with Ligday as coach and Rowe as a program

“Our first year we had 38 little cheerleaders, grades three through eight,” Ligday said.

But the dream of a high school team didn’t die.

“A bunch of people were coming to us from the community saying, ‘We need a team, can you get one going?’” Ligday said.

Ligday and Rowe again turned to the SCVAA, which agreed to run a high school cheerleading team.

So far the response has been positive, according to Ligday.

“Thirty-two is a pretty large team,” she said. “Twenty is about ideal, but man, we just have some amazing talent on this team.”

Eight of the members are high school gymnasts, and seven participate in competitive dance, according to Ligday.

“I’m just in awe of the talent these girls are bringing to this program,” Rowe said. “None of them have cheered in high school, and they’re doing fantastic things.”

Team members aren’t simply shaking pompoms and chanting — they’re also performing some gymnastics-style moves such as round offs and back walkovers, as well as beginner stunts.

“Cheer is an Olympic sport now,” said coach Carla Ekwall, a Stillwater Area High School graduate who owns the competitive cheer studio Cheer Xtreme.

“We want to show the athletic department, the community, that this is an athletic sport,” Ligday said.

Rowe said the three coaches bring a wealth of experience to the program. Ligday and Ekwall have both coached competitive cheer. The third coach, Brita Sandell, is a former Vikings cheerleader. All are volunteers.

“Nobody is getting paid for this,” Rowe said. “They’re doing this out of … their passion for cheer and their passion for the community.”

None of the coaches has a child in the program.

“We’re just doing this because we want to see cheerleading back at the high school,” Sandell said.

The team has been practicing since Aug. 1 and is working on a halftime presentation for the Aug. 31 football game.

Senior Hailey Laubscher, of Stillwater, said the hardest part is “getting everyone to do everything at the same time.”

Her teammate Lauren Thole, also a senior from Stillwater, agreed, but said things are going well ahead of their debut performance.

“It came up really fast, but I think we’ll be ready,” she said.

The two seniors are having fun and especially appreciate the team environment.

“Everyone’s supportive and positive,” Laubscher said.

Ligday said football coach Beau LaBore has also been supportive of the team. She hopes the high school will take over the program from the SCVAA in the future.

Stillwater Area High School activities director Rickey Michel said he would consider a team at the high school but it’s “too early to tell” what will happen.

He said former cheer teams at the school were eliminated due to lack of interest. If it had a team, he said, the high school would want to provide other sports the opportunity to have cheerleaders — not just football.

Another consideration is the future of the school’s dance team.

“We’ve tried to keep dance alive, competitive dance, because it’s a Minnesota State High School League sport,” Michel said.

Questions about the future aside, Michel expects the cheerleaders will be a fun addition to the football experience.

“I look forward to having it for our first game Aug. 31,” he said. “They’ve worked very hard to prepare for it.”

Ligday hopes the community sees value in a cheer squad.

“We just want the community to embrace it as a Friday night experience,” Ligday said. “Instead of just coming to the football game and watching the game, it’s an experience. We really want to get the crowd involved and doing the chants with us and being part of that experience, not just sitting on the bleachers. … Cheerleading and football is a package deal.”

Contact Jonathan Young at [email protected]