Joliet’s cheer program continues to jump, jive and thrive

Alastair Baker
News Editor
Thursday, February 13, 2020
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Photo by Alastair Baker
The Joliet High School Cheerleading team, back row: Joliet Cheerleading Coach Amber O’Rourke, Riley Simons, Kelly Lind, Wyatt Anderson, Cody Dworshak, Sean Sullivan. Middle: Abby Bamfort, Aaliyah Jessen, Alaina Harris, Jaiden Kellog-Brill. Front: Kylia Kliner, Tori Peek, Melanie Peek. Not pictured Mya Colvin.

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Photo by Alastair Baker
The Joliet High School cheerleading team goes through their paces at the Monday evening practice in the old school gym.

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Photo by Alastair Baker
The base sends Tori Peek into orbit, allowing her to perform a spectacular star formation during a practice session.

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Photo by Hank Nowak
The Joliet High School cheerleading team perform a stunt during a recent basketball game.

“There are a lot of them. They keep me on my toes. I’m passionate about this, I love these kids, they’re like an extension of my family,” so says Joliet’s cheerleading coach Amber O’Rourke.

Amber “jumped” at the opportunity to take over the program that had been non-existent at the school for a decade. 

“It’s always been a passion with me. I did cheerleading at Northern College, and it’s something I like to do,” said Amber.

Now in its 2nd year, Joliet’s cheerleading program boasts 23 middle and high school students. With more to come if the mini cheerleading camp held last February is any indication with 30 little kids in attendance.

It’s rekindling is down to two determined students, Abby Bamfort and Tori Peek who have been with the new program from the beginning.

It was Abby, encouraged by her mom, who initially approached the school board about starting up the program again.  

The program had fizzled out a decade before with only one cheerleader to its name.


“I was so worried this would happen to us because we were down to 4 people and now it’s 23,” recalls Abby.

“It was a hard thing to do. It was so new because here in Joliet they hadn’t had cheerleading for so long and everyone was like ‘cheerleading, that’s so stupid’ and we really had to keep our heads up and dig our heels in and keep going and ride out the storm,” said Tori. 

Amber put the decline in the sport’s popularity to stereotypical views.

“In the 1990s and early 2000 cheerleading was pretty big and then all of a sudden it diminished. I think it is a lot of stereotypes,” she said.  “There is a lot of scrutiny, a lot of not thinking out of the box. It’s something new and people don’t want to stick their necks out and be the first.”

“I have a lot of great kids who have been really positive about it. It is a sport, not a 10-minute job,” said Amber. “We practice hard, 5 days a week for 90 minutes a day.”

Melanie Peek who works mostly base, or back spot to help guide the stunt to make sure no one falls, joined the squad in 8th grade. 

“It was a new program and it appealed to me. My older sisters have done this and I thought I‘d join in. Some little kids do come up to us, but it’s still new and we’re still getting into the groove. It’s a sport now. I enjoy watching the team and supporting the team and helping them win because a win for them is a win for us.  We work pretty hard to show up and be there, and show our stunts.”

The high school team comprises 8 girls along with 5 boys who play for the football team and “were like ‘I can do that, no problem,’” said Amber. 

The boys have provided a solid base for the flyers on the team to perform dizzying heights during stunts.

Kelly Lind, a junior, is one of the basemen and describes the cheerleading side of his life as “a lot of fun.” 

“It helps me with my lifting and gives me something to do during volleyball season, and I get to see the games,” he said. 

Kelly plays basketball and does find it difficult juggling the stunting and then having to play a game.

“Sometimes it’s exhausting depending on what stunts we’ve done,” said Kelly.

He got involved after Tori approached him about joining.

“Tori came to me one day and said we need some stuntmen so maybe you guys can throw us higher. We thought we might as well try it,” said Kelly. “Joining at first I thought I wasn’t sure about it. I had a hard time telling my dad but as soon as I did, he said ‘I was going to be a cheerleader in high school too.’ He was a big football player.  It’s cool to throw someone up and be able to catch them. There is a lot of concentrating. I’ve dropped a few but not many.”

Amber points out that the inclusion of boys in the team isn’t just to provide strength.

“It’s about finesse, timing, about being a team, learning and working at something. There are a lot of payoffs to it, a lot of reward to it and really proving it is something to be proud of.”

Colleges are always looking for boys to build up their cheerleading base and some even offer full-ride scholarships.

“They want guys on their cheer squads along with girls. The extra height helps,” said Amber.

The work schedule and ethics are immense especially when cheerleading battles for attention along with other sports. 

“You have kids who want to play football and volleyball and basketball and cross country and they can’t do both,” said Amber.

There are also after school jobs and 4H to contend with but for much of the time “it’s been pretty awesome” she said. 

“It’s hard to get the practice time in with two different squads but they are fantastic. They come with their ideas. I couldn’t ask for better kids, they are a great squad,” said Amber.

Amber’s 13 middle schoolers only practice three days a week, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, while on Tuesday the high school squad hit it hard on the stunting. On Fridays, there are games so the middle school doesn’t have practice. 

As for those dance routines, “we exhaust Pinterest and youtube” laughs Amber.

“Sometimes I give them homework, and ask each to come up with one 8 count (a count system that provides the basis for a dance), and bring it in. I also give them new cheers and they have to come up with new moves.”

“Camp helped this summer with Galaxy Elite Athletics from Missoula. The coach, Toni, was awesome. She gave us two new dances and we’ve worked on them throughout the year and as you incorporate new cheerleaders you teach them,” said Amber.

“There is a lot of choreography and timing and patience for the kids learning it because sometimes it is not a natural movement. My bases have to be really strong and have to have control and my flyers have to have that balance and control and stay tight, and the trust. The trust level is huge in cheer. Having somebody hold you above their head or even being thrown 15 feet into the air (basket tossing), it’s insane. You have to have a lot of trust between your teammates and if you don’t have that, none of it will work,” said Amber. 

“You can’t be afraid to try something new. As a coach, I’m not going to put you in danger, and I’m not going to make you do something you are not ready for or aren’t able to do,” said Amber. “We’re going to do little baby steps to it and get to that next higher level by doing the same thing 47 times and I know you are tired of it but before we go to the next height you need to learn how to do it and it needs to be perfect until you don’t even realize you’re doing it, it’s natural, it’s in your sleep.”

“It pushes them to use the right and left brain and your right and left foot. You can’t get in front of the crowd and be overly shy and perform the way you are supposed to when you are not on your game. It isn’t just you that you can hurt, it’s your team,” she said. 

For cheerleading captains Abby and Tori the journey has been already a long one but rewarding in many ways.

“When I was young I watched cheerleading movies like ‘Bring It On.’ I’ve never been best at sports, I’ve always played sports but was never a star and I feel cheer gave me a way to put some of my athleticism and my knowledge of sports to some good use,” said Tori. 

“We have to know the background of the sports you attend to know what we are cheering for.  I like seeing how far it has come,” said Abby. 

“I hope the middle school cheer team follows it through high school,” said Tori.

“There is a lot of them that could do some really good things and they have even longer to get used to it,” followed up Abby.

“They’ve developed good techniques and we do take some of the middle school flyers and put them into our stunts and get to know what it is like with a lighter flyer,” said Tori. “They know what is needed to have a good team.” 

“Cheering is like an activity that anyone can do as long as they are a little fearless and they have some sort of will to do it,” said Tori.

“Positivity plays a big role,” said Abby. 

“Ginormous,” reiterated Tori.

“It is incredible to watch how far we’ve come,” said Amber. “There is not much more in our rule book we can push. There are a few more tricks, a few finesses, some tightening up and perfecting things. We’ve pretty much got a huge variety of things that we do, especially stunting wise, just trying to perfect instead of adding stuff,’ said Amber.

“We hear all the time after the games, especially since we got the boys we can do way bigger stunts and techniques, there is always one parent who will tell us we were great and how we’ve improved,” said Abby.