The team had to rise above their grief; hold themselves to a higher standard in her memory.
After losing their beloved young coach to cancer in November, the Brandon High School cheerleading squad managed to find the wherewithal – and the leadership – to not just muddle through, but to improve, even thrive.
Heather Hall, 27, had battled on and off with melanoma for years.
But before she was forced to leave her team, she used every ounce of energy she had left to help them succeed, team members said.
And just two months after her death, the squad brought home a second place trophy for their first competition of the year, when previously, fourth place was their average.
Hall came to Brandon High as a math teacher right after graduating from the University of South Florida in 2007. She was a 2002 graduate of Plant City High. She was beloved by students and faculty, alike, at her new job.
And the kids on the cheer team adored her. Getting through the illness with her was tough, they said.
“During the summer, we would talk to the coach all the time,” said squad captain and senior Q’ristien Berrian. “She was here the first month, then would give us guidance through text messages. She came to games, even when she wasn’t able to be at school to teach.”
“I just met her this year,” said freshman squad member Haleyann Johnson. “But we got really close, really fast. She tried so hard to get all of us to work together. She would come when she could and when she couldn’t, Mr. Coach would come.”
The team fondly refers to Hall’s husband, Jarrett Hall, as Mr. Coach. He would occasionally show up with a positive message for the team.
Hall never really let the girls know how bad the battle was getting, said squad captain and senior Devin Lowery. “And it was hard to pull it together when she wasn’t here.”
Then, Dina Langston stepped in. Langston, an assistant principal at Brandon High and a former cheerleader and cheer coach, herself, didn’t go easy on the team.
Yes, she helped them through the pain of Hall’s loss, but what she found in just a short period of time, was how tough this team really is, Langston said.
“Langston just kept pushing us to be better,” Berrian said. “She just kept saying ‘one more time,’ but she never really meant just one more time.”
And the team moms – Vette Berrian, Shauna Hobby, Christine Spencer and Leslie High – were all there, raising the team up.
“She always knew we had her back,” said Vette Berrian, a former cheerleader whom Hall named junior varsity cheer coach. “One of us would be texting (Hall) while we were going through the routines.
“But, for a minute there, it was really hard, especially when we found out she wasn’t coming back.”
Langston’s stern demeanor and focus really got the team focused, Vette Berrian said. “She came in like a whirlwind.”
Then Kristina Stallbaumer, who was the cheer coach before Hall took over, came back and the two coaches were off and running.
Langston said she had quite a challenge.
“The challenge, was just getting to know each other,” Langston said. “We had five weeks till our first competition. And we had nothing. They didn’t know me in their world as a coach and I didn’t know their skills. And we were battling a week-by-week prognosis.”
While Langston kept the team disciplined, Kelsey Devlaeminck, a sophomore, kept Hall’s banner flying. “During practice, I’d remind everyone we were doing it for her,” Devlaeminck said. “I yelled her name out when we were doing our dance.”
“For some, it was the first time they had experienced a loss,” Langston said, referring to Hall’s death. “I learned that they are probably one of the strongest groups of kids I’ve ever known, with such heart. I’ve never been so proud as how this team pulled it together.”
The squad attended Hall’s funeral together. Then, in December, the school hosted a 5K race in Hall’s honor. They called it Heroes for Heather. Some 500 people turned out for the celebration of the young teacher and cheer coach’s life.
As this school year winds down, the squad will again be seeking leadership. Because Langston is an administrator, she is not permitted to take on the job fulltime, she said.
The phone is already ringing.