In 2013, Koren McManus was named coach of the year after she led her River Bluff Gators competitive cheer squad to the Class 3A championship in the program’s first year.
Saturday, McManus’ squad looks to top that feat, as the Gators move into Class 4A in their second year and will challenge neighboring Lexington, the defending Class 4A champion, at the state championship competition at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville.
“Moving into this year, obviously, it’s a big challenge for us physically and emotionally having to go against our friends at Lexington,” McManus said.
Lexington won the Lower State qualifier with the state’s high score — 337 out of a possible 390. River Bluff took second at Lower State with 268, but Dutch Fork posted the second-best local score, earning 323 points to place second at the Upper State qualifier.
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Lexington has a well-rounded squad, led by captains Shelby Stolz, Logan Martin and Kelsi Fringer, and seniors Kyla Smith and Hannah Sturkey.
“It’s a very good group,” coach Shannon Canady said. “They’re great dancers, they’re stunters, they’re great performers.” The Wildcats had technical difficulties in their first two competitions this season, but were grand champions at Dorman and made a strong showing at the Debbie Rodgers Cheer Classic on Oct. 1.
“It’s always hard to defend a state title, but we feel like we have as strong a team as anyone out there. We still have not hit our perfect routine, where all the stars have aligned and we have hit everything,” Canady said.
While the Wildcats hope their high-energy routine will help them capture their second consecutive title, McManus’ Gators do not have the pressure of the “defending champion” mantle.
River Bluff has its work cut out to top both Lexington and Dutch Fork, but McManus said her team has embraced the challenge.
“The girls are working harder than I’ve ever seen them work,” she said.
“Our whole theme this year at River Bluff is momentum. In putting together our routine this year, we really looked at what did we do well last year, and go from there,” McManus said. But, she added, “We definitely had to up the ante. We added a lot more skill this year, to really show off what we’re capable of doing. We challenged ourselves this season.”
One member of the squad suffered an ACL tear during warm-ups at the qualifier, and McManus was proud that her team was able to overcome that absence to place second.
The Gators, led by junior captain Courtney Dolan and senior captains Reagan Bearden and Emilee McFerrin, won competitions at Nation Ford, Lexington and Dutch Fork early in the season, and placed second at the Debbie Rodgers competition.
With River Bluff moved on, traditionally powerful Chapin is a favorite to reclaim the Class 3A championship. Chapin had won five consecutive titles before finishing as runner-up to the Gators in 2013.
The Eagles finished far ahead of the field in the Upper State qualifier, scoring 339.
In the Lower State qualifier, Airport was second with 230 points and Brookland-Cayce scored 224 to place fourth. Both teams will be in the hunt for the 3A title.