Like most high school sports the past 10 months, cheering will have an altogether different feel this winter.

Gone is the ambiance of civic centers packed to the rafters with screaming fans and, in its place, cheerleaders will instead perform in empty gymnasiums.

That is because, this year, high school cheerleaders will hold their competition season virtually.

While on the surface, it seems less than ideal, coaches are upbeat as cheering is the lone sport this winter that will have a state championship sponsored by the Maine Principals’ Association, which tentatively is set for Friday, Feb. 27.

Teams officially were allowed to start practices on Monday, Dec. 14. Social distancing was practiced and masks were worn by participants and coaches. Competitions can officially begin on Monday, Jan. 11.

"I think cheerleading is fortunate to have virtual competitions as an option,” said Belfast coach Chelsea Howard. “This gives our routine a season to learn and master. [And] It was wonderful to reconnect with the team. The returning girls were so excited to be back in person and have a season, regardless of how different it may look.”

"We are excited to have a a competitive outlet with virtual competitions,” said Medomak Valley coach Heather Simmons. “Other states have already successfully done this method. Nothing will compare to a full crowd at the civic center, but, nonetheless, it’s 2020 so we are thankful for what we can do during these times and that we can get together with kids who need this to break up the standard day of computer screens and isolation.”

Simmons said: “The biggest hurdle on day one was exercising with a mask.”

“Most kids have not done anything cheer-related since February, so we eased into conditioning trying to take as many hydration breaks and cool down periods as possible.”

Mount View coach Carol Bryant said: “It is very exciting for the kids and coaches to be back together. We are prepared to move virtual as needed.”

“We are excited for virtual competition,” she said. “Even though its not what we are used to we are having a season when so much has been canceled for them this year. Having great things to look forward to is definitely starting to show in the athletes.”

Rachel Coor, owner of the Midcoast Athletics Center in Warren and assistant coach at Medomak Valley High School, explained the logistics to how the state championships would work.

“You have to designate which routine you’re going to have be considered your state championship routine before you do it,” said Coor. “You can practice all day and say ‘at 5 p.m. this is going to be our state championship routine.’ Your athletic director has to sign-off on the video to vouch for it’s integrity so you’re not sort of cherrypicking or editing videos to give your best performance.”

Coor said, to her understanding, there will be a yet-to-be-designated 24-hour timeframe where the video must be submitted. Then those videos will be judged and later aired on the NFHS Network as part of a live broadcast, where the winners will be announced.

Typically, teams qualify for the state championship by virtue of a top-six finish in thei regional competitions (top six for each region for a total of 12 teams per class). This year, however, all teams are eligible for the state competition.

Suddenly, where squads do not have to be in the same building to compete with other teams, in terms of being able to have a state championship event, cheering finds itself in a considerably enviable position.

“There’s no travel involved,” said Coor. “We’re the only sport that really can stay in a cohort and not have to worry about travel. We’re not playing against other teams, we’re not having other teams come into our gym, our cheerleaders aren’t going to any other gyms.”

In addition, if the tentative date of Feb. 27 gets moved, where the event is virtual, there are no impending venue conflicts to consider.

Of course, routines will look different, which will change the sport’s scoring categories.

“Pyramids are not allowed this year so that category is completely coming out,” said Coor. “Voice category is completely coming out and the expression and showmanship categories are coming out also because everyone has to wear masks.”

Typically, a team can score 100 points. But, with the only categories being judged this year being standing tumbling, running tumbling, partner stunt, jumps, motion and dance, teams will be able to score a maximum of 75 points.

Humbly, coaches and athletes are simply happy for the opportunity to perform and strive for team-oriented goals.

“We are lucky in a sense that cheer has many individual components and our focus this season will be an emphasis on perfection,” said Simmons. “With a new score sheet that rewards execution and a pandemic that may interfere with a consistent practice schedule we have had to tailor our potential choreography to contend with these things.”

"We are very optimistic for this year,” said Howard. “As a new sport in Belfast, we’ll be taking this time to perfect the basics and continue building on skills from prior years. We will make it fun. The seniors on this team were freshmen when we initially brought cheering back in Belfast. They were instrumental in transitioning from a ‘club’ to a varsity sport.

“I want to give them a fun season to remember.”

Oceanside High School coach Stefani Gundel said the Mariners will not take part in the competition season and "will use this winter season to continue building our skills."

"I want everyone to feel 100 percent confident and excited about competing when we return to that option next year," she said.

MAC to host invitational

Where there are no conference or regional competitions this year, the MAC plans to “host” a high school cheering invitational two weeks before the state championships.

Coor said the invitational, open to all teams in the state, will be a “Top Gun” format, meaning teams get judged not only overall, but on individual sections of routines.

“We’re going to let teams send in just video clips of each fundamental section of their routine,” said Coor. “So there will be a jump winner, a partner stunt winner, a dance winner, etc. And we’re just going to allow teams to send their best video. We’re not going to mandate that they take the video between times on certain dates, and we’re doing that because we think there are teams that might not even be able to start until Feb. 1 because of their county code. And while they might not have time to be able to put together a full routine, they might be able to put together a 15-second section and still have something to compete for.”

The MAC is partnering with LCTV in Lincoln County — with the latter to do the broadcast — and Maine high school judges will judge the competition. As with the state competition, schools will be broken up by class.

“We’re hoping to get sponsors from every town that has teams competing and we’ll be able to advertise their logo on the live broadcast," Coor said. "We’re hoping every team in the state takes advantage of it.”