The realities of the end of athletics for high school players are felt on every playing surface. For competitive cheerleaders in West Michigan, there are no delusions of professional circuits, but there is always the state meet.
The Western Michigan Christian competitive cheer program is reaching the climax of its sixth season on the gym floor and its first chance to make it to the big dance. This Saturday, they have their first real shot at qualifying for the state finals at the Deltaplex in March.
After graduating five starters from last year’s regional qualifying team, this season for the Warriors has gone far better than expected. The girls have swept WMC’s scoring record board, taking down every team record on their way to another regional berth.
Advancing from non-existent to tumbling at the Deltaplex in six short years would be remarkable, for WMC head coach, cheer team founder and Grand Haven resident, Jennifer VanHekken, the secret is more than pointed toes and big smiles, it’s putting a complete athlete out on the floor.
“My philosophy is always about making my girls understand that they are a part of something, it’s never about them,” VanHekken said. “The most important thing about a good team is building relationships. It is learning how the move away from self and learn that it means to bring others alongside you and work together as a team.”
What could be confused as a cliché for those in the teaching, coaching or athletic sphere takes a pivotal role in VanHekken’s coaching. Lessons learned about compassion, teamwork, dedication and humility are directly reflected during practice time.
“Every Tuesday, we start practice with a Bible study. To me it is really important. The spiritual aspect of our program is very important,” VanHekken said. “It takes about an hour out of practice every week, but it is important for me for these girls to grow in their faith.”
“Battle ready” is the Warrior’s theme for this season. Coming from Ephesians 6:11, the verse preaches being steady and prepared in one’s faith, so that you can deal with whatever challenges or temptations life creates.
“The most important thing for my athletes to remember is that one day, cheer will be done, even if you go on and do it in college or beyond. It is a part of life, but it is not life,” VanHekken said. “We get to help these kids develop. Teach them how to be teammates, work hard, set goals and strive for thing other than what they can accomplish on their own.
“I love cheer so much, but I know that it will end one day and that there are bigger things out there for these girls.”
The focus on life after athletics influenced by lessons in competition comes is fueled by her own experience; sports have always shaped VanHekken’s life, right down to her family.
Vanhekken and her husband, Chris, who coaches the baseball team at WMC, met while attending Holland High School. She credits sports as the reason they came together.
“Part of who we were in high school was probably our athletics relationship,” she said of the budding romance. “We watched all of each other’s stuff.”
The two started a family and moved to Grand Haven in the early 2000s, but one of those unexpected twists in life tested their battle armor. Like many in 2007, amidst a turbulent economy, the young family pursued opportunity away from home, moving to Florida.
“It was a really good fit for us at the time,” VanHekken said of the move. “But we really missed the community in Grand Haven and the Lakeshore. We missed being able to get together with friends down on the boardwalk in the summer and the family aspect of raising your families together, with the people around you.
“We made a decision we were going to specifically look for jobs back home and some doors opened up, we were able to come back in 2010,”
That door was at WMC; an administration position at a small Christian high school near home seemed perfect, save one problem. No cheer team.
“WMC had an opening I was excited to be a part of, I taught at a Christian school in Florida as well so I was passionate about that,” VanHekken said. “In my interview I asked them if they would ever have a cheer program and they said, ‘no’.”
Despite that disappointment, the VanHekkens moved back to their home on the lakeshore, ready to pursue another phase of life.
Over the next year, she wore WMC down.
“I convinced them,” she said. “I’m passionate about it, I really love the sport. I’m so excited they trusted me enough to give me a shot.”
The shot found nothing but net. In their fourth season in competition, the Warriors qualified for regionals for the first time, and haven’t missed since.
“It has been very exciting to see how far we have come, from a baby program to one that is competitive in the area. We started out as any new program that has started out, just learning what it meant to be a competitive program in the area. I had to do a lot of learning.
“We have increased the difficulty of the routines we put out on the matt and our numbers have increased as well.
The top four teams from each region get to compete at state. This year, the Warriors have a shot.
“Twelve teams compete. I would say that all the teams are in very tight competition,” VanHekken said. “Almost all the teams could score first or 12th. We are working hard this week to put out our best performance.
“Regardless of the outcome, I’m overwhelmed by this group of girls and they work that they put in.”
This year’s team has come into their own as one of the most successful, and officially the highest scoring, WMC cheer teams ever.
“It’s been a really amazing season,” VanHekken said. “The group of girls I had returning, they stepped up into new roles that I couldn’t have even imagined, in ways that go way beyond my being able to tell them or coach them to do. They have worked so hard, and broken every record in the program.
“Heading into regionals this Saturday, we have a chance, but it will be an uphill battle.”
Should the Warriors’ season come to an end this weekend, it will also prove to be another turning point for the VanHekken family.
Kaitlyn VanHekken, daughter of Jennifer and Chris, became the second athlete to complete four years of competitive cheer at WMC as the team’s lone senior this year.
The conclusion of this season will close the book on her cheering career, and test her preparation for the life that comes after.
“My emotions will be incredibly high, her and I have enjoyed the four years that we have been able to do this together, I would guess there will be tears either way,” VanHekken said of the final meet.
“All we can do is go into the competition and do the best that we can do and leave it in God’s hands,” concluded VanHekken.
Of all of VanHekken’s lessons about life, that one may be the clearest. Rest assured at least the girls from WMC cheer, one of the youngest athletics programs in the area, will be battle ready come graduation.