By KEVIN ROBERTS
Heather Allenback has always had an internal school spirit, no matter where she has been.
Allenback, a self-described “military brat,” moved around every three years and saw plenty of different schools. She said she carried a love of the schools she was at because they were more of a home to her than her actual house. For the past 22 years, however, Allenback has settled in comfortably at the helm of Southington High School’s competitive cheerleading team.
She finally found her home.
It’s no surprise to local fans that Allenback, who has dedicated much of her life to the sport that she loves, has been recognized as state coach of the year by the Connecticut High School Coaches Association. It didn’t come by accident.
“It’s a pretty big honor, considering it’s coming from coaches. I’m pretty proud of myself,” Allenback said as her team practiced in the gym before a varsity girls basketball game on Jan. 11.
Senior captain Caitlin Cochran said she’s proud of her coach.
“I’m happy for her. I’ve known her for four or five years,” Cochran said. “I came here as a freshman, and she’s been wonderful. She helped me improve my flying skills and stunting skills. She’s taught me a lot.”
Fellow senior captain Jade O’Keefe said she didn’t even know there was a state coach of the year for cheerleading.
“She’s a good coach, she’s with us all the time, and she deserves it,” O’Keefe said. “I’m just happy for her, and I’m surprised, but it’s a good surprise.”
Allenback said competitive cheerleading has grown a lot and has become popular internationally. It has been recognized as a sport by the International Olympic Committee and could be coming to the Summer Games in the near future. Competitive cheerleading is about much more than cheering for your team on the sidelines.
“It’s big, and I don’t think a lot of people know that, because they think of the traditional cheerleader, which, again, is very important,” Allenback said, “but I don’t think they realize the amount of work and time that it takes.”
Southington’s cheerleaders had fun this past fall season when some of them lined up for powder puff football while the boys served as cheerleaders.
“It’s funny the realization on their face when they go up in the air, and they’re like, ‘Oh my God. This is high,’” said O’Keefe. “And we’re like, ‘No, it’s not.’”
“They see us do simple stunts, and they think that’s amazing,” Cochran added.
Southington cheerleading works together 10 months out of the year. Allenback devises games and trust-building exercises in the beginning for varsity and junior varsity cheerleaders to get them on the same page.
“If you don’t have trust, some stunts may not work,” Cochran said.
O’Keefe said the girls are switched off into different groups by Allenback to promote trust in each other.
“She switches all the stunt groups, she mixes us all up,” O’Keefe said. “We all learn to trust each other.”
Trust and coordination are paramount in competitive cheerleading. When Southington competes, it has to come up with a routine that can be up to two and a half minutes long. The Lady Knights are being scored by four different judges, who each have different aspects of the routine to critique. The judge count becomes eight at the state level.
What does it take to be a competitive cheerleader?
“A good sense of balance, a good sense of jumping for heights, and good flexibility,” Allenback said. “The more they can tumble, the better. That would be like round offs, back handsprings, and such. Those are all part of our scoresheet.”
Allenback is not just Southington’s coach. She serves on cheerleading committees at the CCC and state levels. Allenback helps organize the CCC competition in February, which has up to 31 schools, 32 next year when Lewis Mills becomes a CCC member. All-conference tryouts are held at Southington at the end of January.
Allenback said there is more to Southington cheerleading than competitions.
“I don’t ever, ever want to forget what our job is, which is to be that ambassador to the high school, and to be that liaison between the teams we cheer for, and the fans,” Allenback said. “They love competition, but their other job, and one that is equally important, is the one that sets the tone for the game and helps to get the game going. That means a lot to me.”
Cheerleading has always meant a lot to Allenback, and now she is being recognized as its top coach in the state.
To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Kevin Roberts, email him at KRoberts@SouthingtonObserver.com