Brandon All-Stars

A Place Among the Giants: Brandon All Stars

A Place Among the Giants: Brandon All Stars

We’re all familiar with the cheer powerhouses, organizations like Top Gun, California All Stars and Cheer Athletics, whose names and accolades easily come to mind. But among these giants, Brandon All-Stars has slowly and quietly emerged out of Brandon, Fla. (a suburb of Tampa), and is poised to take its place in the spotlight.

Brandon’s road to the big leagues began in 2005 when co-owner and President Peter Lezin took over the reins from founder Rhonda Cummings. When Cummings first opened Brandon in 1995, it was a recreational organization, whose attention slowly turned to competition. For Lezin, a veteran head instructor for NCA and former USF cheerleader/coach, the biggest challenge in the takeover was leaving that recreational mentality behind. “A billing system had to be put in place and a professional attitude needed to be displayed as well in all areas of the business,” says Lezin.

Enter Joslynne Harrod, Brandon’s Vice President and co-owner. A former Florida State cheerleader and four-year head instructor for NCA, Harrod and Lezin formed a friendship in the late 90s when both worked for the national cheer organization. In Harrod, Lezin found a unique opportunity—an accomplished, competitive coach with a head for business.

“I am a CPA by trade and am always thinking about the numbers,” Harrod said.  “Peter is definitely the more free-thinking, creative part of our business.”

If the results are any indication, this is a successful collaboration. In the near-decade since their formed partnership, Brandon has tripled in size, currently training upwards of 300 all-star athletes per year from Levels 1-5. They’ve also turned out consistent performances that fuel their growing reputation for solid stunting and snatch top rankings—most recently at Jamfest Supernationals, Athletic Championships and Worlds, (where in 2011 and 2012, they earned Gold and Silver, respectively, in the Small Senior Limited Coed 5 category).

Lezin says when it comes to training they focus on technique, as well as “perfection before progression,” with the aim of zero deductions during judging. Their motto on the floor is simple: “If you do hit, you might win…if you don’t hit, you won’t win.” The rest, says Lezin, “is up to the judges.”

That attitude of “do your best and don’t worry about the rest” has helped Brandon navigate Florida’s all-star culture—one that in the past, Lezin admits, was “hostile” but grows increasingly cooperative as “more and more gyms [find] their niche.” To that end, Brandon has developed strong relationships with many of their cohorts: Cheer Corp, Top Dog, Top Gun, Premier and Cheer Florida to name a few. The kids have followed suit. This movement towards cooperative connectivity, aided by the rise in social media and the cheerlebrity phenomenon, may have driven what Lezin calls the industry’s latest trend—a shift from “team” to “individual” recognition. “I think that’s just the nature of the beast because the kids are all so connected now,” said Lezin, “whereas before all you knew was a certain team and not the individual.”

So what’s next for Brandon? The goal is two-fold. First and foremost, Lezin and Harrod aim to shape their cheerleaders into productive members of society, whose athleticism will serve to broaden their educational opportunities. Second, they want what every competitive cheer organization standing on the verge of greatness wants: to secure their place among the giants, as an industry leader and household name.

In April, they came one step closer to realizing that dream when Brandon marked its cinematic debut in Champions League, a “cheer documentary” that traced one night of fierce competition among 30 of the country’s most celebrated teams. Says Lezin, “Champions League is a game changer [for Brandon].”

We shall see.


Two Sides: Universal Scoresheet

Two Sides: Universal Scoresheet

The buzz around adopting a universal scoresheet has reached an all-time high—will one finally be adopted next year? CheerProfessional explores the pros and cons of going forward with this initiative. 

One of the hottest topics at this year’s NACCC conference in Doral? The idea of a universal scoresheet. Cheer professionals Kristen Rosario and John Metz are among the industry’s outspoken advocates for this development, and the 22 member companies of IEP announced their collective endorsement of having a universal scoresheet back in 2010. However, respondents to a CheerProfessional survey in June were evenly split, with half for and half against (and one stipulating that she would support a universal rubric rather than scoresheet).

Many believe a universal scoresheet will help introduce more consistency among competitions, improve consistency and eliminate headaches for event producers. However, others think that a universal scoresheet will create less event choices/competitive advantages for cheer programs and make choreography more homogenous.

So who’s right? To dig deeper into what’s behind the universal scoresheet debate, we talked with Shea Crawford of Brandon All-Stars and Mikey Hobson of Top Notch All-Stars to get their take on this hot-button issue.

Editor’s Note: Please note that the views expressed in this article are expressly those of our sources and not those of CheerProfessional.

Shea Crawford, Tumbling Director & Coach at Brandon All-Stars

Shea’s take on the universal scoresheet: This is something that’s been discussed for at least five years, and the time has finally arrived to make it happen. I first realized the need for a universal scoresheet several years ago when we got the lowest score the first day at a Cheersport competition, then made a very minor change to the routine and got the highest score on day two. We also finished first at a different event two weeks later with the same routine.

So many teams throw amazing routines, but when you have no idea how it will be rewarded, it’s very frustrating. My job should be to read one scoresheet, not five of them. I feel like it’s asking a lot of kids to work on these skills and train and synchronize—something as simple as changing one count is difficult for a lot of these kids. I just want to be able to prepare the same routine for wherever we go—if it was up to me, it’d be the same routine day 1 through day 365.

On how it will affect judging: I think the universal scoresheet will push for [the formation of] a judges’ association. A universal scoresheet will force judges to be better, and when that happens, it will produce more consistency. The importance of deductions will increase and it will serve to clean up routines. It will also allow event producers to focus on the event a lot more and have a lot less scoring discrepancies.  Everywhere you go, you’ll be accountable for the same stuff.

On how it would impact choreography:  One of the biggest arguments against a universal scoresheet is that people don’t want to see cookie-cutter routines. My argument against that is that every single team who goes to any one competition is competing on the same scoresheet [that day]. There are 900 teams that go to Dallas [for NCA], and I have yet to see one cookie-cutter routine there. For me, that nullifies that argument.

On how it will produce more consistency: Gone are the days where you can go to a competition and really predict who won. I have been to so many competitions that I watch as a knowledgeable coach—but when I think I’ve pinpointed first through fourth place I’ve never been more wrong in my life. Right now, our industry sorely lacks consistency, and a universal scoresheet will provide that.

On how it will affect event producers: My opinion is that not having a universal scoresheet works against the event producers. There are a lot more Varsity events than other brands, and I personally would rather go on a similar scoresheet more often than not. It hurts [other EPs] more than it helps by having a different scoresheet.

What’s every EP’s biggest headache? Judging and scores. 99 percent of the problem at any competition stems from judging—wouldn’t they rather concentrate on maintaining the schedule and setting up warm-ups? I don’t understand why event producers don’t embrace it so that all they have to do is worry about hosting the event.

A universal scoresheet wouldn’t be that hard to implement—when I look at Jam Brands and Varsity, the scoresheets are different, but not so different that it’s game-changing. With a universal scoresheet, coaches will no longer say things like, ‘Last week, when I was at another competition, it was legal,’ or ‘I’m going to go to Jam Brands because I can score well there.’”

The bottom line: I think a universal scoresheet will help the industry and that is what is important to me. It doesn’t matter so much which scoresheet it is—good coaches will adapt. The industry needs something; I know entire programs that have folded because they lost competitions they shouldn’t have and the gym down the street beat them. A universal scoresheet will help grow the industry through more consistency and a way for coaches to train better.

Kyle Gadke, Owner/Choreographer at Spirit FX and Coach at Platinum Athletics

Kyle’s take on the universal scoresheet: I come at this topic from both a choreographer and coach perspective, and as I see it, the biggest negative against a universal scoresheet would be the elimination of options for playing different scoresheets.

When working with various gyms as a choreographer, we talk at length about ways to hit the scoresheet. Based on my experience, I feel personally that more people are against a universal scoresheet than for it. I believe that it has become a hot topic because more people are doing research on ways to hit the scoresheets and understand the difference between rubrics.

On how it would affect small gyms: My question is: what’s the ratio of small gym owners that want a universal scoresheet versus medium or large gyms? Most smaller gyms want and need more options, so I’m curious if that plays a role in the discussion. It’s no secret that the Midwest isn’t a game-changer yet—we’re holding our own, but we’re not North Carolina or Texas or Kentucky. We’re always trying to stay ahead, and we like to have choices.

Also, on a broader level, it could take people a long time to get used to a new universal scoresheet, and teams may not win as much—which could directly affect new people coming to our gyms.

On why consistency across the board isn’t necessarily a good thing: We’ve gone back and forth between Varsity and JAMfest—our gym is very stunt-oriented, and we don’t typically score as well at Varsity as we do with JAM Brands. Having various scoresheets gives you options if your style doesn’t hit [at one specific event producer]. Competition wins help you be recognized in your area—having options where we feel confident that we’ll score well helps our success in the long run.

On how it will affect judging:  I can actually see how a universal scoresheet could have a pretty positive impact from the judges’ standpoint. It would make everyone more knowledgeable and efficient knowing one scoresheet instead of five.

On how it would impact choreography: I feel like choreography has already become somewhat cookie-cutter. As for how a universal scoresheet would further that issue, it depends. If it does happen, I would like to see it mirror the Worlds scoresheet approach, where there isn’t really a rubric and they’re just judging the routine you put out on the floor. There aren’t all of these numbers to hit—it’s more about the performance element.

On how it will affect event producers:  From a coaching standpoint, I love the option of picking what style suits us best. Each event producer also has their own niche they like to go for: for example, JAM Brands is fun and game-oriented, while Varsity is more competitive and awards-oriented. It also translates to each EP’s focus: the JAM scoresheet is more about counting skills while Varsity awards creativity. If you take our options away and put everyone on the same scoresheet, you might have more people going to competitions they don’t enjoy. The more options in the market, the better.

The bottom line: If this is going to move forward, then we need more clarity on what exactly the universal scoresheet will be. Will people still be able to add more style? Have choices from an event producer standpoint? All the talk is great, but what specifically will it be? There needs to be more specifics before we can form opinions and move the conversation forward.


Operation Dream Team

Operation Dream Team

The path to championship glory is paved with good intentions—and smart strategies. To help you discover the right road map for your program, we asked several gym owners for their secrets to success:

Be mindful of the trickle-up effect. Focusing too much on any one team can compromise long-term success, says Orson Sykes of Twist and Shout, which has 20 teams and three Oklahoma-based locations. Several years ago, Sykes performed a thorough assessment of the program and realized that more effort needed to be dedicated to nurturing rising talent. “We realized that we had good upper-level teams, but our younger teams were lacking a lot,” admits Sykes, whose teams have won more than 200 national titles to date. “Our mini and youth programs weren’t excelling as much as they should.”

Sykes reallocated his efforts and resources, and today the gym boasts a successful Youth Level 5 team. “That makes me more proud than anything because I know we’ll be able to compete at a high level for a long time,” he says.

Require a high level of commitment. At Arlington, TX-based Spirit of Texas, cheerleaders are required to attend all practices year-round regardless of illness or outside obligations (the only exception being school functions that result in a letter grade). Mandatory practices are held twice weekly for up to five hours, which co-owner Brett Allen Hansen says helps to elevate the level of excellence. “At Spirit of Texas, everyone is equally committed because everyone is equal—no one is so amazing that they get to miss practice,” shares Hansen, who co-owns the gym with Brad Vaughan. “Not having your entire team at every practice is mind-boggling to me.”

Rock Solid All-Stars in Pinellas Park, FL, takes a similar approach, but only during Nationals season from January until Worlds. Practices are held three times per week, with a “no-miss” policy firmly in place the week before any competition. “’Get better or get beaten’ is our motto,” says owner Carol Bariteau. “We work hard, because we know there is always another gym out there working harder.”

Make sure your staff is in the know. At Rock Solid All-Stars, Bariteau makes a point of requiring her employees to follow industry policies and rule changes closely. To do so, her staff members attend coaches’ meetings as often as possible and stay abreast of updates on the USASF website. “It’s all about the numbers game and knowing how to work the scoresheet,” says Bariteau, whose program has been to Worlds every year since 2007. “Not knowing the scoresheet has hurt our teams in the past, so that’s where your staff really needs to be on top of its game. Since there are so many grey areas, knowing how to get the wow effect while staying within the rules is a big deal.”

Find your “thing” and nurture it. Whether it’s jumps, daring stunts, or stand-out choreography, having a signature strength can be a surefire strategy for standing out from the rest of the competitive pack. To pinpoint your program’s secret weapon, Spirit of Texas’ Hansen recommends honing in on one particular strength during training and playing it up in routines. “Most groups in the top tier have something that they are the best in,” says Hansen. “Really push those areas where you’re great, but don’t forget to also nurture the weak areas so they don’t wash each other out.”

Zero in on stunting potential. In Tampa at Brandon All-Stars, president Peter Lezin places a strong emphasis on finding skilled stunters during the tryout process, saying they “pick [their teams] like a football team, all based on stunting positions.” Hansen does the same at Spirit of Texas, designating a certain amount of slots for bases, spotters, and flyers. He adds that they like to keep the same stunt groups together every year, so it’s important to choose wisely.

“When we’re putting together our team, we look at having 24 people on the team and how they fit into the six stunt groups,” says Hansen. “If you get a whole squad of girls that do double twists but all of them weigh 95 pounds, who will hold each other up? If all of your kids can’t build and do stunts, they won’t be competitive.”

Sykes of Twist & Shout agrees. “We use to take all the kids with fulls and doubles and put them all on one team, despite what they could do stunting-wise,” he shares. “Now, I have kids who can’t do a full to save their lives but they can base any stunt. Stunting has become so important to your overall score that it makes them extremely valuable on our teams.”

Encourage skill mastery. Though many programs have certain minimum requirements in order to make various teams, Bariteau says she’s mindful of assessing true skill level beyond the selection process. “Many athletes are able to hit a skill under pressure during tryouts when the adrenaline is flowing,” she says. “Then, at practice, you end up dealing with kids that don’t have the skill mastered and that poses a problem. We want to be able to effectively run our practices without having to do the skill over and over again when one person doesn’t hit.”

To avoid this issue, Bariteau performs random skill checks throughout the year, and says that she makes athletes aware that “they can be moved at any time to another team if they’re not up to par.”

Learn from the best. Though Twist & Shout is widely regarded as one of the top programs in the industry, Sykes says that he’s constantly seeking ways to become better. “We don’t ever get to a point where we feel like we’ve ‘arrived’ or are too big to learn,” says Sykes, a frequent conference attendee and speaker. “If you want to stay successful, you have to keep pushing yourself to learn more and more.” One way Sykes encourages his teams to learn is by exposing them to other successful squads; at competition, Twist & Shout teams are required to watch the others perform. Says Sykes, “We look at how top teams handle and perform in high-pressure situations—we try to learn from the good and the bad.”

Another effective method is practicing with other teams. Sykes often honors requests from other coaches who want to bring their teams to his gym to observe and train together, and Twist & Shout has its own “buddy team” that they work out and practice with every year at Worlds. “It’s beneficial for both of us,” says Sykes.

Stay united. At Spirit of Texas, Hansen makes a concerted effort to keep teams intact from tryouts through the end of the season. “The team that wins a Worlds bid or goes to Nationals is usually the same time that tried out—once we make selections, rarely do they change,” says Hansen, adding that his motivation is to develop the utmost team camaraderie and dynamics. “When a team has one heartbeat as the walk onto the floor, it’s noticeable and gives you an edge every time.”