DEXTER, Maine — David McKusick, the face of the Dexter High School cheering squad, is finally getting his chance to perform with the Tigers at the state championships.
The Tigers won their second straight Eastern Maine Class C championship last month and will compete in the states on Monday at the Bangor Auditorium.
McKusick, a 6-foot-1-inch, 200-pound senior and one of three co-captains, was on last year’s team but couldn’t perform at states.
He will this year and the team is happy about that.
“He’s the heart of the team,” said senior co-captain Harley Ponte, “which is kind of ironic, actually [laughs].”
The irony is that it was a heart problem that kept him out of last year’s state event. After the 2012 EM regional, a sluggish McKusick was diagnosed with endocarditis, an infection that affected a heart valve.
“He got a fever last year and his mouth got some sores, and that’s what caused the infection to go to his heart,” said Cheryl McKusick, David’s mother.
David was in the hospital for more than two weeks and on an intravenous antibiotic at home for several weeks after that.
“And the visitors were limited, too,” said Dexter cheering coach Kacie Ladd. “We all needed to be careful around him, in terms of sicknesses and the winter stuff.”
Cheering at states was out of the question, and he struggled emotionally.
“I was more unhappy that I couldn’t cheer than the fact that I had a heart infection,” said McKusick. “I was on two teams then, so it was like you were letting your team down. … But then once you’re in the hospital, you gotta think, ‘Yeah, I need this.’”
Meanwhile, the team soldiered on.
“Having to go to states and be without David, it hurt us, but it pushed us to do it for him,” said Ponte.
While he couldn’t cheer, McKusick was able to attend the state meet, and it stirred the team.
“When David rolled in on the wheelchair, we instantly were like, ‘All right, we’re ready, let’s go,’” said Ponte, “because before that we were wicked nervous, we were like, ‘Oh my word, this is going to be bad.’ … [Seeing David] just changed our whole point of view on it.”
Down one stunt group and one flier group, the Tigers still managed a fourth-place finish among the 12 Class C teams. The runner-up team in the East regional, Central of Corinth, took home the state trophy.
“David wasn’t the only person we lost at that time. We lost two more for different reasons. So we adjusted our routine, but we were still able to pull out fourth, so I was really proud of them for that,” said Ladd.
McKusick’s return this year wasn’t guaranteed, but he has recovered well.
“There’s always that [concern] in the back of your head, but no, he’s doing great,” said Cheryl McKusick, who pointed out there is still more medical work to be done. “At some point he will have to have his valve replaced.”
Until then, he’s back focusing on his cheering.
He had to come back slowly because of the antibiotics. He never did work out with the team during the summer, but he did get work in.
“He’s not one to be cooped up, and all summer he was out on the trampoline,” said his mother.
David McKusick also was able to work eventually with his other team.
“Over the summer, I’m on a team called Planet Cheer Galaxy in Lewiston,” he said of the team that performs in the National Cheerleaders Association. “It’s basically an all-star team. It’s like the NBA for cheering. … That not only conditioned me for high school, it got me more skills that let me learn more stuff and do more stunts.”
McKusick shared those skills when he finally rejoined his teammates at the start of practice in mid-November, about the time the flu and cold viruses were starting to strike hard, especially in the schools.
“His dad [Mark] and I keep a good eye on him,” said Cheryl McKusick. “He did get that viral thing, but other than that he’s [been fine].”
In cheering, David picked up where he left off, maybe better, according to Ladd.
“His tumbling’s tighter, he still has the same enthusiasm, if not more,” she said. “He’s just excited to be in senior year and competing and being back. You can just tell. Everybody’s feeling the same way, too.”
“When David left, it was like we weren’t really sure what to do,” said sophomore Sarah Vigue, “and then as soon as he came back, we were like, ‘We’ve gotta do it again. It’s his senior year,’ and put our hearts and souls into it.”
McKusick said he has fun with everything, almost.
“Definitely not jumps,” he said with a short laugh. “The biggest fun is going out there and acting like a fool for two minutes, 30 seconds and not having anyone make fun of you for it because you know that’s what you have to do out there. So I can go out there and do stupid faces all I want.”
“I’m not sure he doesn’t have a strength in regard to cheering,” said Ladd. “Really, they’re all strengths. All the categories: the motions, the facial expressions, the tumbling, the jumps, the dances. He’s really clean and tight with his motions, which is big in cheering.”
The team has become more close-knit this year, partly because of McKusick’s health problems.
“Now we all try and hang out because you have to have as much fun as you can with everybody because you never know what’s going to happen to someone,” said Vigue.
There are 17 members of the team this year, but only nine of them perform in competition because there are so many new people. The other eight, plus the mascot, stand off to the side clapping and cheering their teammates as they build their skills for the future.
The performers on the Dexter cheering team, in addition to McKusick, Ponte and Vigue, are: co-captain Aaliyah Williams, Mackenzie McKusick, Danielle Whitten, Shayna Fogg, Madison Provost and Alex Wulf. They are backed by Ansalewit Laughton, Stacey Allen, Laurel Desmarais, Airiell Knowlton, Katelyn Morgan, Phoebe Phillips, Emmitt Ross, Autumn Young plus mascot Matt Stanhope and manager Gabrielle Bilodeau.
“All the upperclassmen, the people who have cheered before, really kind of bond and try to teach them as much as we can,” said David McKusick. “They’re here for the next four years, so we want to make sure they have a good, solid cheering team.”
Their excitement for possibly winning the school’s first state cheering title is building.
“I’m so excited. It’s just so much fun, and I think we’re going to do pretty good,” said Vigue.
“I’m looking forward to going to state competition with a full team. I want to see what’s up for grabs this time,” said Ponte.
Classes C and D will perform starting at 3 p.m., followed by Classes A and B. The event was postponed from Saturday because of the snowstorm Friday and Saturday.
McKusick also is looking ahead to cheering in college, although he hasn’t picked a school yet.
“We’re looking at Florida and other colleges in the north,” said Ladd, who is helping him narrow his choices. “I don’t know what his first choice is. What I do know for a fact is he wants to cheer in college. I believe he will cheer in college. That’s what I can tell you, for sure.”
His mom is sure as well.
“As far as academics, he doesn’t care [what he studies]. He just wants to cheer,” she said.
Ladd feels the team has learned something from what McKusick has gone through and will go through.
“They definitely all got a message of not giving up and doing what you love no matter what it takes. He fought really hard through those couple months and everyone saw that,” she said.
Cheryl McKusick knew it would be no other way.
“He lives to cheer,” she said.