Following summer camp, the squad lost a teammate. Incoming freshman Brittany Tipler was killed in a car accident in late June.
"It was very hard because it felt like our team was going to fall apart," said senior Kelly Walton, squad captain.
But Brittany's death actually brought the team closer together. "She was an inspiration to us," Pam Williams, East Prairie High math teacher and cheerleading sponsor, said.
And that inspiration led the East Prairie Eagles to the Missouri State Cheerleading Championships at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where they were named the 3-A large champions.
The cheerleaders' stellar season began early this summer when they attended the Universal Cheerleading Association camp in St. Louis. At camp, the Eagles won quite a few awards, including dance champion, cheer champion, extreme routine, leadership award and a superior trophy for all blue ribbons. "This was probably the best year I've ever had at camp," Walton said.
But things got difficult following camp and their teammate's death. "It was hard at times because our team would get so stressed out," Walton said. "We had to replace where she was in the routine and no one wanted to take her spot."
As team captain, Walton knew that she had to pull her team together. "I had to keep them going and let them know they had to keep cheering for Brittany," Walton said. "She (Brittany) never would have quit."
Junior Lauren Thurmond agreed. "It was hard on us but it made us try to work harder because we knew we were going to do it for her."
In honor of Brittany, the squad came up with a bumblebee slogan. "It began with a 'b' and so does Brittany," Walton explained. "It also stands for 'Be all that you can be.'" Rather than wearing black arm bands, they wore bumblebee tattoos on their faces.
However, overcoming the loss of Brittany was not the only challenge the Eagles cheerleaders faced in their quest to become state champions. In August, they competed in the Southeast Missouri Regional Competition in Farmington.
The squad had to place in the top five at regionals to receive a bid to compete at state. They performed a three minute nonstop routine, exhibiting every cheer technique possible, Williams said.
"We're judged on a variety of things, including creativity, stunts and crowd response," Walton added. The squad's performance included two dances, a show cheer, a sign cheer and tumbling.
After winning regionals, the squad began preparing for state competition, where they would be judged on the same criteria but perform a different routine. "We had from August to November to work on the routine for state," Williams said.
And practice was hard work. The squad had participated in 100 practices before state. "We even practiced early in the morning the day we left," Walton said.
But all of the practices were worth it, because the squad was ready to compete. "After the routine was over, I knew we had done the best we could possibly do," Walton remembered. The cheerleaders recalled being nervous while waiting for awards, but elated when announced as champions. "We all started jumping around and crying and stuff," Thurmond said. "We were just so excited."
The cheerleaders have been honored by their school and town of East Prairie. "The town has been very supportive and proud of the cheerleaders," Williams said.
At a game, the mayor read a proclamation from the city and presented the state champion medals to the squad. The girls were also honored at a school board meeting. "It felt really good," Thurmond said. "It felt like somebody actually cared that we had won."
Winning state was a dream come true after everything that the squad had been through. "There was lots of stress and lots of hard work, but when it came down to winning it was all worth it," Thurmond said.
"It was probably the best feeling I could have to leave high school knowing that my school had won first place at state," Walton agreed.
The experience was also very worthwhile for Williams, who has been the cheerleading sponsor since 1970. "It's very rewarding because the girls put in a lot of time that they wouldn't have to if they weren't going to state," she said. "And when they do and receive first place, it makes me very happy."