Cheer squad continues to grow to whole new level
The stadium lights gleaned off the rhinestones of the chic new navy blue uniforms.
A hushed tone of anticipation overtook the crowd.
When a medley of Beyonce songs began to belt out from the stadium speakers, the revamped Sierra Canyon cheerleading squad delivered a visual masterpiece with a jaw-dropping performance featuring sharp dance moves, stunts and formation changes.
It was clear this was not the same old song and dance.
“It was almost like an award show-type of performance. Or like an NBA or NFL halftime show,” Sierra Canyon cheerleading coach Reyna Joy Banks said.
Since Banks took over the cheerleading program in the summer of 2020, the size of the squad has more than tripled from five to 17 girls, and the performances have turned into must-see events.
Banks – a former dancer for Beyonce and Usher among others who has also choreographed for Grammys, BET Awards and Billboard Awards – choreographs a new routine every week for her growing squad.
In addition to the dazzling Beyonce medley, they have had performances that have included The Pussycat Dolls, Britney Spears and The King of the Dead (though the ever-optimistic Banks prefers to call that song The King is Alive).
Banks said this week’s performance – set to a medley of Janet Jackson songs – could potentially be the most magnificent yet.
“The girls look like they are ready to perform for the Super Bowl,” Banks said.
Captain Anabella Bonito, the longest tenured on the squad as a three-year member, said Sierra Canyon cheerleading has become next level.
Bonito said the entire school is taking notice of the drastic and rapid improvements on the squad.
“They are totally with us,” Bonito said. “During one of the beats of the songs if we hit it or stunt well, they are right there cheering with us. It is so much fun and there is a lot more school spirit now.
“We are learning so much from Coach Reyna. We are doing stunts for the first time, and that is a big deal in cheer. And we have a lot of unique and fun choreography.”
Banks put together an extensive tryout process for every potential cheerleader, having them go through their jumps while learning one cheer and one dance on the spot.
There was also a process for selecting the captains that included a sit-down interview with Banks and last year’s outgoing seniors.
Bonito and junior Ashley Ju emerged as the co-captains.
“We asked them questions – very strategic questions,” Banks said. “We saw how they were with problem-solving. We asked them what leadership meant to them and why it was important to be on the cheer squad. And we asked them what sets them apart.
“These two showed the most amazing leadership ability.”
Banks has given Bonito, who dances competitively for Elite Dance Center, opportunities to help with the choreography and to have viable input.
“Anabella is a powerful dancer who has good choreography experience,” Banks said.
Sierra Canyon participated in Cheer Camp in Palm Springs over the summer and won several awards, including Most Spirited on the first night, Best Showmanship and Most Improved. Bonito won Best Toe Touch jump and was a finalist in the Dancing Queen Danceoff.
The cheer squad has also become a fixture for the nationally recognized basketball and football teams, particularly the halftime shows.
“We brought the fire last year, and we’re bringing even more fire this year,” Banks said.
Junior Hannah Sullivan and sophomore Carly Antoine are also returners from last year’s squad.
Junior Sophia Dimasiss Krausz also brings a veteran presence to a squad that does not have any seniors.
Banks has a large group of underclassmen.
Kayla Blatt, Kaylanee Crunk, Shanna Slipock, Lilah Scott, Natalia Tasu and Sydney Sharp lead the sophomore contingent.
Freshmen Liv Kearney, Zoee Jones, Jessie Combs, D’Lila Combs and Zoe Swinton are bringing in positive energy in their first year on the squad.
“I love to watch these girls glow and grow,” Banks said. “They are a breath of fresh air. They are bringing me so much joy. It’s about bringing up and raising these future legends, the next Obama, the next Ellen DeGeneres, the next Jennifer Aniston. It’s great to be part of their future, for them to know who they are, to love themselves and to put in their mind what they can accomplish.”
Banks also credits her coaching staff.
Solene Flores returned as an assistant coach and has shined in an elevated role, and former Sierra Canyon cheerleader Gianna Marshall has returned to the coaching staff while attending FIDM.
“They have been a big part in what we are doing,” Banks said. “We choreograph the mess out of these songs every week. And we drill it and drill it, like a drill sergeant, but with rainbows, butterflies and cupcakes. It’s a process, but we want to make a powerful moment. We want the audience to be impacted.
“They are going to a whole other level.”
Young volleyball team gains experience
A genuine sense of excitement comes over Sierra Canyon girls volleyball coach Stefanie Wigfall when she looks at her team roster for the 2021 season.
Almost a giddiness.
“I don’t know if we have had a more athletic team,” Wigfall said.
That is quite a statement from a coach who has built Sierra Canyon into a perennial power, one that has captured five consecutive Gold Coast League championships to accompany CIF Southern Section crowns in 2016 and 2017 and a state title in 2017.
The roster is laden with athleticism.
The biggest question will be experience.
Wigfall will plug a lot of young players into key roles this year, players who have not chalked up a lot of high school experience, especially due to the cancellation of the 2020 season due to the pandemic.
“We have power, athleticism and speed,” Wigfall said. “But none of that matters if you don’t have a volleyball IQ. I love the opportunity to work with these great athletes, but there will be a lot of learning and teaching.
“We should have a drastic improvement by the end of the season.”
What Sierra Canyon lacks in terms of high school experience, it makes up for with its club volleyball experience.
Sophomore outside hitter Danica Rach (a transfer from Louisville) and sophomore middle blocker Madeline Way (a transfer from Hart) played for a club team that finished fifth at nationals.
Freshman libero Lauren Lynch also sparked her club team to a fifth-place finish at nationals.
Sophomore stetter Sade Ilawole sparked her club team to a seventh-place finish.
“We have players who have high-level club experience, but are young in high school years,” Wigfall said. “Not having a season last year, that lack of experience shows.“
Junior outside hitter Olivia Babcock is one of the top recruits in the nation and will be a go-to player for Sierra Canyon.
Her sister Natalie Babcock will also be looked upon as a vital contributor.
Senior libero Nala Henderson is a key returner who will provide valuable experience and leadership for Sierra Canyon, which will try to overcome the loss of senior outside hitter Sidney Montgomery, who suffered a season-ending leg injury.
Junior opposite hitter Stormy Grant-Gorence and junior middle blocker Ava Hewitt-Smith will also bring much-needed experience.
“We’re going to be good. We’re pretty young though, and there will be a lot of learning this year,” Wigfall said.
Sierra Canyon has started the season by winning seven of its first 10 matches.
After recording nonleague victories over Marlborough, Calabasas and Notre Dame Academy, Sierra Canyon posted a 3-3 record at the California Challenge, earning quality victories over Point Loma, Newport Harbor and Clovis West while dropping matches against The Bishop’s School, Santa Margarita and Del Norte.
“It was a good tournament for us,” Wigfall said. “There was a lot of progress and we were able to figure out some things. We did not schedule too many nonleague matches, so it was good to get on the court and get some match experience.”
Sierra Canyon opened Gold Coast League play with a four-set victory over rival Viewpoint on Tuesday and should be the favorite for its sixth consecutive league title. Campbell Hall appears to be the biggest threat.
Sierra Canyon will also test itself at the prestigious Durango Tournament in Las Vegas that boasts some of the top teams across the country on Sept. 17-18.
Then Sierra Canyon could land in one of three playoff divisions.
Either the cutthroat Open Division or the hearty Division 1 playoffs could prove to be a challenge for such a young squad.
Or Sierra Canyon could potentially do some major damage if they make the Division 2 playoffs.
“We have a lot of potential,” Wigfall said. ““It might be next year before we do something in the Open. We can do well in Division 1, but if it’s Division 2, we could do something big.”
All the while building for the future.