Essence Garlington led her fellow cheerleaders by the arm to the center of their school’s gymnasium.
More than a hundred people sat in the old wooden stands, illuminated by light beaming from the second-floor windows.
Garlington, an 11th-grader at the Governor Morehead School for the Blind, was one of the few who could see the crowd from the mat.
The school’s five cheerleaders had practiced their routine for months in preparation for Saturday morning. But the 16-year-old Charlotte native was nervous.
“I was kind of panicking,” Garlington said afterward. “Then I told myself, ‘You know what? You’ve got to suck it up.’
“And I did.”
The Governor Morehead School, founded in 1845, has a storied history and dozens of championship banners hanging in its gym.
But when Garlington and her teammates took to the floor during the Eastern Athletic Association of the Blind tournament at their campus on Saturday, they became the first Governor Morehead students to cheer in a major competition since 2011.
“We either didn’t have enough people or no one wanted to participate,” said Shonny Williams, one of their coaches.
The school, which offers preschool through 12th grade for the visually impaired, has about 50 students.
“I begged her to bring (the cheerleading team) back,” said Michelle Miller, a ninth-grader from Charlotte.
What they lacked in experience, they made up for in enthusiasm.
Garlington, Miller, Cassidy Hooper, Taylor Nichols and Brooklyn Geise said they couldn’t wait to cheer against schools from Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia.
The blue-and-gold-clad Chargers girls clapped, punched and stepped their way across the floor with poms-poms in hand. And the cheering rarely stopped when they got back to the bench.
Friends and family members were waiting with outstretched arms after each dance.
“I’ve waited for that my whole life,” Hooper announced as she hugged her friends after one routine.
Saturday’s cheerleading and wrestling tournament is the only one most of the schools will participate in all year.
Training for the event took time and patience. The girls had the physical ability, but they didn’t have confidence, Williams said.
“They would say to me, ‘Aw, Ms. Shonny I can’t do that,’ ” she said.
Williams taught the girls moves by standing behind or in front of them and moving their hands where needed.
“The rest was about memorization and following the beat,” she said. “Everything is on an 8 count.”
To be effective cheerleaders, the girls also had to learn to smile more.
“You have to be loud. You have to be happy. You have to smile,” Hooper said. “It was hard, but being hard is what makes it good.”
It was also tough because one of the cheerleaders, Nichols, was slowly losing her eyesight as the training went on.
“Part of my job is to try to hold myself together, to be there for them when they’re crying on my chest,” Williams said.
Nichols said she recently had surgery on her retina and couldn’t cheer in Saturday’s competition. But she was dancing from her seat and making plenty of noise when her classmates were out on the floor.
“They’ve been so supportive of me,” Nichols said of her teammates and coaches. “So I’m excited just to be here with them and hear everyone bring so much energy.”
The girls chanted “Let’s go Chargers, let’s go!” when Governor Morehead wrestlers Nicholas Hatley and ShaZion Newkirk stepped into the ring.
The chant became “Chargers in the house!” after Hatley pinned his first opponent.
“It was a really good feeling,” he said of wrestling in front of cheerleaders and fans.
Hatley, who’s 6-foot-2 and 188 pounds, has wrestled since he entered high school. He savored this year’s tournament because, as a senior, it will be his last.
“I just love being here with other wrestlers and making friends,” Hatley said.
The event was special for the other athletes, too – many of whom were competing for the first time.
Liz Harrington was a crowd favorite.
Harrington was born without eyesight and also has cerebral palsy, a disorder that impairs her nervous system and keeps her in a wheelchair.
She always wanted to be a cheerleader “because I like being loud,” she said. But she couldn’t join the cheerleading team at her home school in Delaware.
When she joined the Maryland School for the Blind, known as MSB, the cheerleading coach not only welcomed Harrington but asked her to lead some of the routines.
At first, Harrington wasn’t sure she could do it. But she got better over time and, by Saturday, she had a surprise for friends and family members who hadn’t seen her practice.
She prayed she wouldn’t mess it up.
“When we got out there, I whispered to one of my friends, ‘I can feel all the eyes,’ ” Harrington said. “I was so worried.”
Then the music started and Harrington, who has limited use of her legs, stood up from her wheelchair. One of the MSB coaches, Beverly Schmitz, crouched behind her just in case she tumbled.
The crowd let out a “woo,” and Harrington led more than one routine from her feet.
“For once, I wasn’t the girl in the wheelchair,” she said. “I was an MSB star.”
‘The greatest experience’
Elijah McClinton woke up not knowing whether he’d be able to participate in the wrestling tournament.
McClinton, a senior at Overbrook School for the Blind in Pennsylvania, has congenital glaucoma in one eye. Some days, the pain prevents him from doing much of anything.
On Saturday, McClinton, who’s 6-foot-2 and about 225 pounds, felt good enough to take on a wrestler from New York who was bigger and taller than he is.
“He’s only got a couple pounds on me, but he’s got muscle, and I’ve got a little blubber,” McClinton said after the match.
The 18-year-old Philadelphia native was losing the match until late in the third and final round when the two became deadlocked.
They stomped across the mat, jostling for position. At one point, it seemed McClinton was on his way down. Then, in a couple of swift moves, he gained the upper hand and slowly pinned his opponent’s back against the mat.
The referee blew her whistle and raised McClinton’s arm.
His opponent slapped the floor in frustration, and McClinton’s teammates rushed him.
“I need water!” McClinton yelled as he stumbled toward his coach.
Between swigs, he declared, “This is the greatest experience of my life.”