With state championships looming, the North Marion cheer team is peaking at the right time

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - North Marion's cheerleading squad The North Marion cheer team stands huddled together near the edge of the performance mat at the Oregon Elite Classic on Friday.

Located in the Salem Pavilion at the Oregon State Fairgrounds, the OE Classic is the final competition for the Huskies before the 2018 State Championships this weekend in Portland. It's the last opportunity for North Marion to get any kinks out before state, and pre-performance anxiety hangs in the air as the Huskies wait to be called to the mat.

"When we're at two minutes, where I'm at the front by myself and the girls are on that back corner waiting for them to call 'North Marion' is when everyone gets the nerves," North Marion head coach Ashley Murray said.

Not that anyone in the stands can tell.

The Huskies smile, laugh and dance together in a tight circle as Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" blares throughout the arena. When they are finally called to the mat, the team breaks from their huddle and their enthusiasm comes bursting forth, enveloping their performance to the very end. PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - North Marion's cheer squad

After all, it's cheer, and excitement is the name of the game. But these girls would be just as animated during a weeknight practice in an otherwise empty gym as they are in front of a panel of judges seated high on a dais before a crowd of fans and onlookers.

"Our strength is in our heart right now," Murray said. "They take what we say and say 'Yes coach,' and they try, try and try again."

That heart is needed more than ever this year. The Huskies return just four members from last year's team that placed fourth at the state championships. The rest of the team is relatively new to the sport, and the coaching staff has spent the better part of the past eight months trying to integrate the relative skill levels of each athlete into a cohesive unit.

"Most of these girls are coming in with zero experience in cheer or dance," Murray said. "Only four of nine have ever done this before, so all of it is brand new."

While the competitive season for cheer is barely more than a month long, the team is nearly active year round. Tryouts for this year's team began in May of 2017 with some modest team activities in the summer. The program's only month off is July, and the team begins in earnest during the fall athletic season, creating a routine and working on bits and pieces of it at practice after school and during football games.

"It's a big commitment, especially for high schoolers who are in the here and now," Murray said.

Each athlete enters the program with their own unique skill set — some are dancers, others can tumble, and a few show skill at building. It's up to the Murray and her staff to incorporate all those skills together in a routine that challenges the Huskies to compete at the apex of their abilities by the end of the season in February.

"Some girls are good at one thing. Some are good at another," Murray said. "So we're really good at coming together and working as a team, which is honestly our strength."

Competition season begins in January, with meets around the Willamette Valley every weekend, culminating with the State Championship at the Veteran's Memorial Coliseum in Portland. The Huskies have traditionally put forth a very strong showing each year, placing fourth last year and top five in four of the past five seasons.

The team was the dominant force in 4A cheer throughout much of the previous decade, winning six consecutive state titles from 2007-2012, but placement isn't as important to Murray as simply getting her team to improve each week and making sure that each performance is done to the best of their abilities.

"Placement for us doesn't matter as much," Murray said. "We like to see ourselves improve over the season. We have five total competitions, so what I tell the girls is from the first one to the very last one, I want to see an increase in our scores."

The team placed third overall among 4A schools, falling one spot from their second-place performance the week prior. But Murray is more focused on the product on the mat, and by all accounts, the Huskies hit it out of the park on Saturday.  The team was poised and hit all their marks, peaking as a team the week before state, just as they should be.

"It's like they took everything we told them and finally put it all together on the mat," Murray said just after the performance. "Honestly, I don't care if we get dead last. It was so good. I am so proud of them."

The 2018 Cheerleading State Championships will take place Saturday at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Portland. The Huskies are scheduled to compete at 9:05 a.m., with the awards presentation set for 11:45 a.m.

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