Winning back-to-back championships is one of the more difficult goals to achieve in sports, in large part because of the added pressure that comes with the quest to repeat. However, one way a team can alleviate this burden is to pretend it doesn’t exist at all — a mindset popularized by University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban.
This strategy proved successful for Lambert High School’s competitive cheerleading squad, as it was able to earn its second straight Class AAAAAA title at the Georgia High School Association Cheerleading State Championship on Saturday.
"One of the first things I said at our first meeting was, ‘We don’t talk about repeating,’" head coach Brent Paige said. "I heard Saban talk about doing that before and it really stuck with me. It paid off for us in the end, and we were able to win it all for the second time in a row."
The Longhorns, who battled through some early season struggles, were not only tasked with the challenge of repeating but had to do so with a different, more inexperienced roster than the previous campaign. This created some extra bumps in the road along the way, but the improvements were consistent and substantial.
"We had a lot of girls this year that hadn’t been in that state situation before. We had one girl who had never cheered competitively before this year," Paige said. "They had a big learning curve, whereas last year’s team had been around for a long time.
"But they got better every single week."
While the newcomers gained experience over the course of the season, they remained untested under the bright lights of the state championship. More than 3,000 cheerleaders from all over Georgia convened in one big arena, creating an atmosphere that can be overwhelming for younger athletes.
"State is a different kind of situation than normal competition," senior Madeline Laymac said. "You’re in a big arena with bright lights. You have to prepare [the new cheerleaders] all season long and help them perform in this situation."
While much of Lambert’s squad had never performed on that kind of stage before, they thrived under the spotlight.
"When we came off the floor, we knew we had done the best possible routine that we could have ever done," Paige said. "At that point all we could do was sit back and watch it all unfold."
Most championship teams can pinpoint a moment that set them on the course for glory, and Lambert was no exception.
"It was our last [regular season] meet," senior Haley Hartle said, "and we didn’t do as well as we wanted to. We had been struggling, and it made us all realize we needed to step it up a little if we really wanted the outcome to be what we wanted."
"We won that meet," Paige said. "They didn’t do as well as they wanted to, and that was the catalyst that brought them together and made them say, ‘OK. We have to get our heads right. We have to get our heads in the game.’"
Paige, who also teaches science at Lambert High, is considered a tough and demanding coach by his cheerleaders. But the girls also understand his leadership style plays a big role in getting the most out of his squad, and the results speak for themselves.
"He’s always there pushing us and trying to get more out of us," Laymac said. "It can be hard, but in the end it’s all worth it. The extra practices and workouts pay off in the end.
"He knows what our limits are and he pushes us to them."
For Paige, it’s difficult to compare his first and second state title, but he believes that the adversity this year’s squad overcame made it a more fulfilling triumph.
"Your level of satisfaction for reaching the pinnacle of your sport is going to be high," Paige said. "But it definitely was an added level in satisfaction this year given the challenges we faced.
"There aren’t many teams in the state of Georgia that can say they’ve gone back-to-back in the sport of cheerleading. That makes it more special for us."