It often takes a special situation for an opposing team’s fans to cheer for their opponents, but a situation exactly like that occurred in Science Hill’s gym on the night of Jan. 14.
“Did you see that even the opponents were cheering for them?” asked an extremely excited Janet Drish as her Sparkle Squad cheering team cleared from center court after their performance.
During halftime, the Sparkle Squad, comprised of four boys and five girls who go to the high school and have special needs, took the floor and rocked the crowd with a mixture of dance moves and cheers with the help and guidance of the group’s director Drish and several helpers.
She was right in reading both sides of the crowd. They went bonkers with applause and praise for the group.
After a lackluster start by the Hilltoppers, in which they found themselves down 14-1 to the Vikings of Tennessee High, the crowd got the lift they needed.
“We are (clap, clap) Science Hill! (clap, clap),” “Let’s Go, Toppers!” and “Good job! Good job!” are some of the Sparkle Squad’s main cheers, just like other Hilltopper cheerleaders.
At a practice about 90 minutes before the squad was set to take the court, Drish, a math teacher at the school, was joined by her helpers and parents in getting the finishing touches on her cheerleading group’s routine for the night.
The “rock ’n’ roll medley” mix, as Drish called it, is a performance to a medley of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire,” Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll,” The Rolling Stones’ “It’s Only Rock and Roll,” Twisted Sister’s “I Wanna Rock” and “Jailhouse Rock” by Elvis Presley.
Presley’s portion of the mix is the favorite of one squad member because of her family tree, said Holly Presley, 18.
“I like the Elvis one, and I’m related to him,” said Presley, who said she loves dancing for the crowds and is on her first year on the Sparkle Squad.
Her teammate, Destiny Swanner, a 16-year-old in a wheelchair, said she loves performing with a group, and feels her teammates make it easier to perform in front of such large crowds.
Swanner’s father, Robert, said the group is “morally energetic,” and he can tell his daughter and the other kids are thriving off each other. He said it’s a great thing for schools to have, and he wished other area schools would have options like this for their special needs kids. The benefits are great, said Swanner, who said his daughter’s physical therapy has improved since she joined the Sparkle Squad.
Physical benefits aside, the emotional effects have been immense, too, one helper of the group said.
Science Hill senior Marissa Jay White-Quarles said the personality changes in the members of the Sparkle Squad are vast when they interact with each other and perform for others.
“I think it’s not only a great thing for them, but a great thing for our school and our community,” White-Quarles said. “It shows that it doesn’t matter if you’re different.”
She said she’s a former cheerleader herself, and got into helping with the Sparkle Squad when they’d practice and she’d poke her head in to see what they were up to. After doing this a few times, she said she was asked to help out, and jumped at the opportunity.
“I get so excited for this,” she said. “You watch all these kids turn from shy kids into entertainers.”
The team aspect and the sense of belonging are some of the biggest parts of it for Drish. She said most of the kids long to be a part of the group, and with the Sparkle Squad, they get a chance to wear uniforms like the other cheerleaders and members of the sports teams.
She said they’ll wear their T-shirts on game days, which serve as their warm-ups before they change into their uniforms before the game.
Drish said the student body embraces and loves the group, and really makes them feel like they’re an integral part in their school’s spirit.
No one gets more out of it than Drish, she said, adding that you can’t help but be happy when you’re around the group. She says the parents and other special education teachers at the school deserve thanks for making the Sparkle Squad work as well as it does.
Becky Greenway, mother of 16-year-old Sparkle Squad member Graison, was one of the many parents in attendance at the pre-game practice whom Drish said had helped with the program.
Greenway said Graison wanted to join the squad last year, but opted for karate due to the lack of boys on the team. With that year of karate under his belt, she said he joined up with the other boys and has found his love of dancing, putting everything he has into it and obsessively trying to learn every dance he can.
She finds herself speechless when talking about watching her son perform with his team and what it does for him and the rest of the kids. She said it all makes her extremely emotional.