Cheer coaches strive to lead team to victory

In movies and popular culture, cheerleading is plagued by elitist, superficial stereotypes. However, coaches Dionna McTaw and Africa “Liz” Lancaster have sought to make the sport a space for empowerment and leadership. 

Lancaster, a former Wilson cheerleader herself, started her coaching career when her daughter showed interest in cheer but was too young to join her elementary school team. “I gathered a few of her friends and started teaching them the fundamentals, like motions and tumbling,” Lancaster said. Lancaster’s daughter’s school soon asked her to coach the official school team. 

After coaching for the elementary school level, Lancaster moved onto coaching dance, All-Star, Rec, and high school teams, but she emphasized that there is nothing better than being back at Wilson coaching her old team. “This is an amazing opportunity as an alumna, class of ‘94. There is pride in being a Wilson High School cheerleader that I can’t explain,” Lancaster said. 

McTaw began coaching cheer because of her love for dance. After a few years of assisting teams with dance choreography, McTaw decided to make coaching a bigger part of her life. “I went on to get certified and coached for a popular All-Star team,” she explained.

Lancaster and McTaw want to push the team to their full potential seeing the passion each athlete has for cheer. “As a Wilson High cheer [alumna] I want to see this team grow. I know that with trust, hard work, and dedication from both the student athletes and coaches, we can bring the cheerleading championship back to where it belongs,” Lancaster expressed. “We are here because we have a passion for cheer, a love for DC, [and] the skills to create an award winning team,” McTaw added.

The coaches brought in Wilson cheer alumnae to speak with the team about the history of the sport at Wilson and give advice for the upcoming seasons. Next year, to build and maintain these relationships, Lancaster and McTaw plan to introduce the Wilson High School alumni Mentor Program to link athletes with an alumni who attended, or currently attend, the same college that the student athlete is interested in, or who share similar career interests with them. “[This way] the alumni will support the student athlete through college,” Lancaster said. 

The coaches place a huge emphasis on college prep. Cheer teaches athletes discipline, which will help them begin their lives after high school. Along with this, the athletes are pushed to maintain a 2.5 GPA. “We want our student athletes to be marketable athletically and academically when applying for college,” Lancaster said. “We want our student athletes to lay to rest the stigma behind cheerleaders—the worldwide stigma [that] cheerleaders are dumb.” 

Both coaches have a shared interest in competition season. “Competition season allows cheer athletes to display athleticism in their sport,” Lancaster said. “[It is] when our athletes get to shine and show what all of the practice, sacrifice, and hard work was about,” McTaw added. During the other seasons, such as basketball and football, they are only seen cheering on the sidelines.

“Cheer has created an extended family for me,” McTaw said. “I hope the current graduating class of cheerleaders will leave Wilson with an unbreakable bond of sisterhood that they can depend on.” •