Live Oak High School Principal Beth Jones was preparing to host the Livingston Parish Special Olympics, had a student write and publish a book, saw three students sweep the State’s Art Competition, and learned two students had become National Merit Finalists. The school was having a good week.

Then, the cheer team arrived in vans filled with gold medals and coveted national champion white jackets.

The Live Oak High School cheerleaders performed high-flying tricks, showed off crowd leading abilities and stunting and tumbling skills on their way to win top prizes in their category at the National High School Cheerleading Championship earlier this month in Orlando.

The competition, which included dance teams and cheerleaders, showcased 25,000 athletes across 1,270 teams from 36 different states. Internationally, 62 teams from 12 countries also competed. Cheerleading teams were judged on their crowd leading abilities, stunting and tumbling skills and overall performance. All teams competing in the championships had to qualify at a regional event or camp in order to participate.

The 2020 National High School cheerleading and dance championships celebrated more than 25,000 of the country’s top high school cheerleaders and dancers. The events were produced by the Universal Cheerleaders Association and Universal Dance Association, both Varsity Spirit brands.

The Live Oak squad was named National and World Champions in Large Varsity Division 2 for their traditional routines. They pulled off a win in the Worlds Division, made up of squads who have already won gold medals.

The Eagles also picked up a bronze award in the Game Day Super Large Varsity Division 2 event. The Live Oak team competed Feb. 7-9.

Senior Halle Varnado said “It was amazing knowing that all the hard work, sweat, and tears we put into it have paid off.”

For years, Watson-area cheerleading teams have been heading to Walt Disney World in February, going head-to-head with cheerleading’s best squads. But the last five years have seen Live Oak’s competitive skills catch fire.

Live Oak High School’s teams have gone to national competitions 11 times, and come back as champions four times. And those four wins were in the last five years.

Cheerleading competition consist of more than just cheers and clapping. A two-and-a-half-minute competition routine must contain a dance, a cheer, sophisticated builds and stunts. The higher the difficulty level, the more points that can be won. This year’s lead-off stunt involved cheerleaders going from standing on the floor to an elevated hand stand supported by their bases, and being vaulted to stand in their bases hands.

Senior Dalana Gill says “It’s an even better feeling to nail the routine cleanly than to hear that you have won.”

“The amount of hard work and dedication to get this level is amazing, and I am proud that it paid off for these girls” added Jones. “These girls are just as good off the court, great leaders, and great examples of what it means to be a Live Oak Eagle.”

Senior cheerleader Jillian Schenk said the team practices at least five times a week, and up that to six or seven times a week when competition gets closer. “Plus two hours of tumbling a day.”

The year’s Live Oak injury count reads like a college football roster: foot surgeries, ankle surgeries, and shoulder surgery. And for one girl, both a torn ACL and wrist surgery. And that’s on top of the normal sprains and bruises.

There are other Watson-area Live Oak teams also in Orlando. And they’re beginning to gather up gold medals. And those winning teams feed performance-hungry cheerleaders directly into the high school program.

Coaches Madison Guidry and Kate Hornsby have drilled competitive instincts into the girls. They and sponsors Dawn Amato and Jimmie Chandler keep the girls heads attuned to supporting other cheer teams traveling the same road.

And the entire Watson community has connected with that cohesive spirit. Well wishes dot electronic signage in the business district, and small handmade signs dot the roadside on the team’s travel route.

And the Eagle High School football team gathered the night before the team left for a sendoff.

The high spirits last throughout a grueling 13-hour trip to Orlando. The next 4 days are spent running among venues and performing the routine, keeping spirits high.

As competition time nears, the team warms up. Then they huddle up to “their song,” “Don’t Give Up On Me,” by Andy Grammer.

They gather for prayer and the seniors’ pep talk just behind the performance curtain – just the girls, no coaches, and no sponsors. Then it’s time to pour it all into this one performance, and “leave it all out on the mat.”

This recipe for success is now becoming a tradition for a rural school. Live Oak’s name is known in the competitive cheerleading world. Other teams saunter over and watch the Eagles practice at their hotel.

Principal Beth Jones says “We’re proud of what they win, and what they do to give back to the community.”

Members of the Live Oak award-winning team are seniors Victoria Burr, Dalana Gill, Piper Horne, Jillian Schenk, Halle Varnado, Kaitlyn Waller and Abby Wang; juniors Reagan Davis, Grace Fruge', Erica Murkowski and Bri White; sophomores Breanna Allen, Kenley Boudreaux, Abigail Couvillion, Cameron Cutrer, Laney Prescott, Ally Richard and Addi Vallot; and freshmen Rileigh Broussard, Bella Dunnam, Audrey Easley, Laney LeBlanc, Julianne Long, Abbey McCulley, Kaylie Ott and Londyn Smiley.