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Body of work, Spirit of success — Six Brookhaven cheer teams from Mississippi Spirit gym go to nationals

They arrived, by land and by air, to their sport’s greatest stage, as their sport’s greatest athletes.

Eighty-eight young cheerleaders from Brookhaven, Jackson, McComb, Monticello, Natchez and all across Southwest Mississippi, ranging in age from 9 to 19 and competing on six teams under Brookhaven’s Mississippi Spirit gym, went to the D2 Summit in Orlando, Florida, on May 10-14 to face the nation’s best cheer squads at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Just making it that far in the world of competitive cheer is a victory itself, and the gym’s oldest squad finished 10th overall, making them among America’s elite.

“It was freakin’ awesome,” said Molly Hennington, 18, a West Lincoln senior who has cheered competitively since childhood for 14 seasons. “This year, my senior year, getting to go to finals was such a big deal. I felt like all these years have been completely worth it, and all the hard work has paid off.”

Hennington competed on Team Fire, a senior-level 4.2 squad consisting of 15 cheerleaders. Two of the team’s members’ flights were late due to graduations back home. Their on-stage time was delayed.

They worried. If anything went wrong, it would be broadcast live on Varsity TV. With the team finally assembled and in the “hole,” waiting to perform, the bases — those who hold up the flyers — had their talk while the flyers met separately. Then they came together one last time and leaders spoke. They prayed.

“This was a stage we’d never competed on before,” Hennington said. “All these big teams from Texas and California are all there watching you, from little Brookhaven, Mississippi. We knew we had to do our best routines. I told myself, ‘I have to hit.’”

They hit.

“My momma came up to me while I was in warmups and said, ‘Y’all made it to the finals,’” Hennington said. “It was definitely one of the best feelings ever. I even cried a little bit.”

While the oldest girls had the strongest showing, all six teams placed and earned the title of the nation’s finest. They call themselves by names fit for kings and queens, or assassins — Royalty, in purple, the youth level one team with 13 members; Pink, youth level two with 16 members; Midnight, with black trappings, junior level 3 with 15 members; Steel, in silver, junior level four with 12 members; Crush, bright orange bows in their hair, senior level two with 17 members.

Fire, the oldest bunch, are trimmed in red.

All six teams received performance-based invitations to the D2 Summit based on high scores at a trio of play-in competitions in Louisiana. One team — Pink — received a paid bid for $25,000 to cover their fees, flight and expenses.

Mississippi Spirit coach Zachary Cain said just making it to the Summit puts the cheerleaders in the top 6 percent in the nation. Estimates say there are as many as 150,000 cheer squads in the nation. All the local squads finished in at least the top half of their divisions, he said.

“At this stage of competition, it’s where every gym owner, coach and athlete wants to spend their end-of-the-year event. It’s hyped,” Cain said. “Normally gyms have one or two teams qualify, and that’s a huge honor, but for our program it was huge that all six of our eligible teams qualified. Only two other gyms in the country had more teams competing than us.”

Cain coached them to the Summit with experience. Though he never participated in a school cheer squad at Brookhaven Academy, or Copiah-Lincoln Community College, or Southern Miss, he began tumbling at age 4 and started cheering competitively at age 7.

“I know what it takes to get these teams to the top,” Cain said. “I have a straight style of coaching. The parents might not always like how tough it is, or much we have to practice — it’s pretty extreme. But when we win, and these kids do amazing things, it puts it all into perspective.”

For Hennington, the win puts into perspective 15 hours of cheer training each week. She’s at the gym every day, practicing her own routines for two teams, coaching two teams of her own and preparing for the squad at Southwest Mississippi Community College, where she’ll attend on a cheer scholarship this fall. Her freshman year will be her last as a competitive cheerleader.

“That will be really sad,” she said. “But it has brought me friends that will last a lifetime. I met my roommate next year through cheer, and she’s my best friend, my go-to person. The gym is my family, too.”

Angela Myles’ daughter, 12-year-old Brookhaven Academy student Allie Jane Myles, is in her third year with Mississippi Spirit. She competes on Pink and Steel, and her mother said competitive cheer keeps her daughter focused.

“It is a sport where you have to be 100 percent dedicated,” Myles said. “It takes all of you to complete the task. Allie Jane has learned commitment, responsibility and made lots of great friendships.”

Myles will be at the gym Saturday for tryouts. Anyone is welcome to audition for Mississippi Spirit. Tryouts begin at 2 p.m. and there is a $25 tryout fee.