BIDDEFORD, Maine — They tossed, turned, rolled and danced around the middle of the field — all to the delight of an appreciative audience at Waterhouse Field on Saturday night. Cheerleaders live for evenings like this, and you can bet they were grateful to be under the lights to end their high school careers at the Maine Shrine Lobster Bowl Classic.
For the past four days, eastern and western cheerleaders worked together and created new routines from scratch for the 25th annual all-star football game. Their hard work paid off Saturday evening. The mesmerized crowd stayed put when cheerleaders met at the 50-yard line to strut their stuff during halftime festivities.
Many cheerleaders were educated about the Shriners’ mission during their week-long training camp, but Oxford Hills graduate Ashley O’Neil has a vested interest in being a Shriners cheerleader.
Her father is a burn victim.
“My dad was a Shriners kid so that is really awesome,” said O’Neil, who will be attending the University of Maine in the fall. “He was really proud of me … and it has meant a lot to me to cheer with the best of the best.”
O’Neil believes cheerleaders play an integral role in any football game.
“Cheerleaders are important,” O’Neil said. “I think they are important to pump up the crowd and get the football players going.”
“I think it is very important for them to be here,” coach Deb Loveless said. “They get picked from their schools and the coaches pick them to be here, and they all work together, and it gives them one more time to cheer for a game, and I think that is really good for them.”
Loveless said this positive experience for cheerleaders creates lasting friendships and memories. She knows all about their experiences. She has been coaching Shriners cheerleaders since 1997 and helped introduce the high-flying, bouncing athletes to their debut at the 1999 Lobster Bowl game.
“They get to meet new people, new friends, lifelong friends for them,” Loveless said.
“They are doing this one more time for the hospital and for the Shrine and to know all about the Shrine hospital, but they get to meet all these new people and they all know they are all the same.”
The cheerleaders understand the Shriners’ compassion and devotion to helping burn victims.
“We also do the Kora Shrine cheering competition at Lewiston High School with [athletic director] Jason Fuller in Lewiston, and we raise money for the hospital,” Loveless said. “The cheerleaders take it very serious, which is great.”
“They are wonderful young ladies. I have enjoyed all week with them. I am really proud of them. From Class A to Class D, they are all working to perform together,” Loveless said.
“It has been something I have been really looking forward to since I was a freshman,” said Brooke Steele, a Spruce Mountain graduate who will be attending Husson University in Bangor. “I wanted to really get chosen to be here because it is great to represent my school or and a cause that’s better than cheering for yourself or your school.”
“You are raising money for children who are sick or need something,” said Steele.
“I thought it was definitely an honor to be chosen and for this great cause,” said Abby Madden, a Lewiston graduate who will be attending the University of Maine at Farmington. “I think it was a really great experience for me to be able to work next to some of my biggest rivals and come together and work together for this great cause.”
For several cheerleaders, getting chosen to perform is the best way to end a high school career.
“It’s very important since I was cheering since I was little and all the way up through high school,” Mountain Valley graduate Kelsie Blanchard said. “I actually know a person who works with my mom, and her son went to the Shriners hospital a couple of months ago. So it is nice to know that people are really appreciate it.”
Oxford Hills graduate Lindsay Day was surprised she got the call to perform at the Maine Shrine Lobster Bowl. She was injured her senior year and didn’t get to compete for most of the season.
“[Loveless] said I was invited to the Lobster Bowl and I was excited to compete for my last year of cheering,” said Day, who will also be a student at Husson. “Very important because I like to end things on a good note and this is a good cause, and I am cheering with the best of the best, and I am friends with them now.”
Leavitt graduate Alexia Barcelou was a bit apprehensive when she was picked to perform at the Lobster Bowl.
“I am glad to be picked, but I was also nervous. It’s my first time away from home,” she said.
But when the cheerleaders performed their opening act and helped Shriners unfurl an American flag across the field, any nerves turned to smiles, all the way down the line.