Alexa Wagner won three state championships as a competition cheerleader during her time as a student at Lambert. This fall, in her first season as head coach, the 2016 LHS graduate helped end the Longhorns' longest title drought in the sport since winning their first title in 2012.
“It was probably one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had,” Wagner said of leading Lambert to the Class 7A championship Nov. 12 in Macon. “I learned a lot this year from my other two coaches [Caroline Richardson and Alisa Kiefer]. The girls had a really good bond.
“Truly, I think we all came in at the beginning and said, ‘We haven’t done this in a long time.’ We did everything we could this year to put the girls in the best mindset they could be in. We had a mindset coach come in to see the girls every week, and they probably did more team bonding than we’ve ever done before.”
The Longhorns had finished first as recently as 2019, but by Lambert's standards, though, it had been a long time.
During Wagner's school years, the Longhorns went back-to-back in 2012 and 2013. After coming up short her junior season, Lambert won it all again in 2015.
While the Longhorns went on to evenly split the next six 7A crowns with South Forsyth, the War Eagles entered 2022 looking for a three-peat.
After serving as an assistant coach in the program last fall and seeing Lambert finish a distant 10th at state, Wagner had other ideas, and her athletes and fellow coaches brought it to fruition.
"We pushed a lot of limits this year," Wagner said. "We had the girls decide if they wanted to do harder stunts this year or play it on the safe side. They all decided that they wanted to push their limits. When they called our name, all of it was worth it.”
Wagner credited the team's four seniors — Kenna Cohen, Katie McWhorter, Olivia Natoli and Ifuna Onyiuke — with helping set the expectation that the bond between the girls would be key to success.
“They are the most incredible leaders,” Wagner said of the quartet. “They are close, and I think that really reflected on the team. They got the girls together each week to do stuff outside of cheer, which is important to them.”
In some ways, Wagner went through a fifth year of high school competition cheer, with so many nostalgia-inducing experiences. Then again, the Longhorns also introduced her to some new ones.
“All of the traditions we do are almost the exact same,” Wagner said. “It was pretty cool. I basically got to go through it all again with the girls. We also brought some new traditions, so it was a mixture of both. I got to relive it all, but we also wanted to bring some new things to the program. So we changed a lot, which is cool.”
Even though Wagner has only coached these athletes for, at most, two years, she knew some of them from her days at Lambert. The full-circle nature of that only added to the excitement around leading her alma mater back to glory.
“Some of the girls on the team, I did their minicamps when I cheered,” Wagner said. “I knew some of them growing up. They were little babies when I cheered there. … It’s cool to see them grow.”
Following a strong showing the weekend before state, when they placed first in both of the concurrent region and sectional competitions, Wagner didn't know what to expect at the final event of the year. In 2021, the Longhorns won the region title, as well, but couldn't replicate the performance in Macon.
This time, Lambert managed to do so, edging out North Paulding, Richmond Hill and Hillgrove. Local sides South Forsyth and Denmark also joined the Longhorns in the final six, which are called to the floor prior to the announcement of the champions.
But it was Lambert that topped the standings once again.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” Wagner said. “That’s what made it an even better feeling. The girls who were on the team had never won before. Last year after not being called down to the floor, we were so excited that we were in the top six.
“To hear our names being called, there’s a video of their reaction, it was the most incredible feeling in the world. In that moment, everything paid off."