ELKTON — Standing under the bright lights of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Siegel Center in Richmond, there was a moment where Gracie Rogers felt nervous and wasn’t quite sure about what to expect.
As East Rockingham prepared for a second-round performance in the Virginia High School League Class 2 state cheer competition in November, she said the Eagles’ four coaches — David Lam, Haley McCoy, Aleena Pickett and Corrie Reed — offered some words of encouragement before their final act and it paid off.
“We had worked really hard up until then,” Rogers said. “Right before we went to go on the mat, our coaches looked at us and were like, ‘Listen, guys. Go have fun out there and whatever you do, just love each other as a team. You’ve worked hard for this.’”
The result was East Rock, which has only missed the state competition twice since the school opened in 2010, putting on its best performance of the year and posting a score of 229.5, which was good enough for third place behind back-to-back champion Stuarts Draft and second-place Central.
Not only did the Eagles show off their best performances late in the year, but so did Rogers, who announced in May that she had made the N.C. State University cheerleading team for next year.
“As a coach, I am very proud of Gracie,” said Lam, the ERHS head coach. “She worked day in and day out to achieve this goal and I’m honored to have been there through the process. Without her own hard work and drive, she never would have made the team. I was just helping her along.”
It wasn’t an easy path to cheering at the Division I school in Raleigh, N.C.
Rogers, who said she played several different sports growing up and didn’t start investing herself into cheer until her junior year, visited 12 schools as a junior and started looking into what it would take to continue cheering in college.
“When I visited N.C. State, I walked into Carter-Finley Stadium and I was like, ‘I want this. This is perfect. This is where I want to cheer,’” Rogers said.
Despite her affection for the N.C. State football stadium, there was still a lot of improvement needed before Rogers could even try out for the Wolfpack cheerleading team, she said.
So slowly she began working relentlessly to acquire the necessary skills to earn a chance with the team and after sending a video showing what she could do on the mat to N.C. State coach Harold Trammell, she earned a tryout in May.
Two weeks later, she found out she had made the team.
“Gracie was a special talent because she was the full package,” Lam said. “Not only did she have skills, but she had the perfect attitude to accompany it. She was always willing to push herself further, and her team further as well.”
That desire to get better is what led Rogers to this point, she said.
Right now, she said she is a member of the N.C. State sideline cheer team, which will cheer at football, basketball, volleyball and gymnastics events, but she said she hopes to make the Wolfpack competition team in July.
There is a small co-ed competition team, which is like traditional high school competition cheer, she said. There is also a game-day competition squad, which highlights the traditional elements of leading a crowd, performing the fight song and band cheers.
“The level of tumbling is really challenging compared to what I experienced in high school,” Rogers said. “In high school, I did not have enough skills for that. The highest skill level we competed in high school is like the minimum requirement, you have to have it there. It’s tough. Every day when you come to practice, you need to make sure you’re able to keep up with your teammates.”
N.C. State has a long tradition of success in national cheerleading competitions, winning titles in 1986, 1990, 1991, 2001, 2016, 2018 and 2019.
“I’m excited to be able to learn how to compete with my teammates because I know how talented they are,” Rogers said. “I’m definitely going to have to work hard, learn how to get better. I’m excited to see how that goes.”
Becoming a Division I cheerleader from the Shenandoah Valley isn’t easy, Lam said.
Many of the athletes on the N.C. State cheer team grew up in various travel organizations, cheering in competitions around the world and seeing a different level of cheer than what city/county athletes around here see, he said.
“The key to Gracie’s success in college cheer will be hard work and persistence,” Lam said. “We live in a small town where there isn’t much cheer opportunity. … She will just need to push herself hard, spend extra hours in the gym and not set any limits for herself. She’s already doing just that, and I am sure she will continue to do so. She has already gotten so many new skills to make N.C. State’s cheerleading team that the public never got to see her compete on the high school cheer floor.”
It wasn’t just those skills that made Rogers so loved at East Rockingham.
From her willingness to help others to her passion in everything she did, Lam said Rogers personified the type of captain any team would want.
“Gracie was a huge leader on the team this year,” Lam said. “A lot of the girls looked up to Gracie because of her experience and skill level and she never used that to place herself above any other athlete, but to encourage them and help them strive to reach her level of talent and performance.”
Now that Rogers is officially a member of the team, Lam said it makes him proud as a coach and that he is excited about making the four-hour trip to Raleigh to see her perform in the fall.
When Rogers steps foot back in Carter-Finley Stadium for the first game of her collegiate cheerleading career, she said she’ll be reminded of why she chose N.C. State, but will also have those same nerves that she overcame last season at VCU.
And even though she’ll have new teammates, coaches and an unfamiliar uniform on, she said it will be all of the moments that “she loved every second of” at East Rockingham with her teammates and coaches that will continue to push her through.
To her, she said, that moment at the VHSL Class 2 state competition in November represented what cheerleading, in her eyes, is all about.
“We didn’t really think about winning there,” Rogers said. “We just thought about having a good time. … That moment represented the family we had at ERHS. We really did have fun, no matter what we were doing. That’s how it should be.”