LAND O' LAKES - Last fall, more than 800 juniors, sophomores and freshmen were transferred from Land O' Lakes High School to the newly built Sunlake High School, leaving coaches to deal with a number of uncertainties involving rosters, equipment and schedules.
Pennye Garcia, who was the Sunlake cheerleading coach last season, however, had no uncertainty when she selected junior Sophia Haddad as team captain.
"I knew Sophia because she was a JV cheerleader at Land O' Lakes when I was coaching varsity," Garcia said. "She was selected as captain for her leadership skills and her experience to help with a young team. The younger players, especially the freshmen, looked up to her. Having her as a captain helped to take some of the pressure off of me in orienting the team to my style of coaching."
One of the ways Haddad helped was with her creativity in developing the dance routines.
"We are our own choreographers," Haddad said. "We make things up and if they don't work, we try something else. One of the best parts of cheerleading is using our imagination."
At age 5, Haddad's parents enrolled her at a local gymnastics club and two years later, she switched to cheerleading.
"Gymnastics and cheerleading are similar because both involve tumbling and require strength, flexibility and coordination, but gymnastics is an individual sport and I preferred the team concept of cheerleading," Haddad said. "By working side by side and spending so much time with the team, I've developed many friendships and close relationships. My teammates are like family."
Like most high school cheerleaders, the Seahawks practice every day after school for their performances, which typically take place at school athletic events, such as Friday night football games.
According to Haddad, the routines are typically 21/2 minutes in length and are rehearsed at least 10 times at each practice.
"By the time we are at an event, each move has been practiced at least 100 times," she said. "By repeating a move so many times, we don't have to think about it."
Despite completed their inaugural season this past school year, the Seahawks cheerleaders have enjoyed success at local and state competitions. At the Best of Pasco competition, the team placed second. They were also invited to compete at the Florida State Fair, finishing third. At this year's statewide competition in Boca Raton, they took seventh.
Each summer, 100 of the nation's top high school cheerleaders are invited to attend a training camp hosted by the University of Hawaii to which Haddad was recently honored as one of the invitees.
To maintain her arm and leg strength when not cheerleading, Haddad threw the shot put for the school's varsity track team. This past season, her best throw was 24 feet, 8 inches, barely missing out on a district berth. To qualify for district competition, she had to throw 25 feet.
"Senior year," she said, "I'm certain I'll do it."
The classroom is another area in which Haddad excels. Since her freshman year, she has taken honors classes in English, science and math. In the fall, Haddad will take an Advanced Placement class in biology and a dual enrollment class in English. After college, she plans to become a biomedical scientist.
"I took an anatomy class this year," she said. "Studying DNA fascinates me. I love to see how living things work and fit together."
In addition to her commitment to school and sports, Haddad is an active volunteer in the community. As the secretary of Sunlake's Key Club, she helped gather and distribute toiletries to those who are homeless in the area. The club also visited an animal shelter to help clean and care for the animals. To raise money for cancer research, Haddad supported Relay For Life by selling bracelets and tie-dye T-shirts.
On Sundays, she volunteers at her church teaching Sunday school to kids as young as 10.
"When we started, it seemed the students were there only because of their parents," Haddad said. "By the end of the year, they wanted to be there. Reading the Bible gave them something positive to believe in."
One of Haddad's goals is to attend UCF and become a member of its top-ranked cheerleading team. She realizes it is an uphill struggle, but is determined to try.
"You have to work for what you want," she said. "You have to push yourself hard to be the best that you can be."