On the surface, Stingrays duo Casey Jones and Roger Schonder may come off like polar opposites, but one commonality shines—for both of them, all roads lead back to cheer. Jones began his career cheering at Georgia Southern University, then cut his teeth at Pro Cheer before purchasing American Cheer Academy from Tate Chalk in 1998. When he reinvented the gym as the Stingray All-Stars in 2002, Schonder was on the verge of leaving the industry altogether and becoming a pilot, but shifted gears to join Jones’ new venture as the fledgling program’s all-star director.
And what a difference a decade makes—as Schonder’s talents have taken flight in an entirely new direction. “When we planned this out, we wanted our all-star program to be the best in the world,” shares Jones. “That’s what we are always striving for.” Adds Schonder, “We both had the same vision. We wanted a program that was successful at every level and age group.”
Many would say they’re well on their way to accomplishing that shared mission, consistently placing in the top 3 at Worlds and winning a slew of national championships at NCA, JamFest, and others. (The Stingrays hold six Worlds titles in the Small Senior division alone.) In 10 years, the gym’s manpower has more than doubled—from 9 teams with 200+ athletes to 18 teams with 500+ athletes. In April, the Marietta, GA-based gym also expanded to include a second location about 30 miles away in Johns Creek, GA.
“I spent a year trying to decide whether to start [a new location] from scratch or buy out a smaller gym,” says Jones, who now splits his time between Marietta and Johns Creek. “We ended up buying out the All-Star Panthers, which was on the side of town we wanted and felt like a great fit. Now I’m focused on trying to grow and set the right foundation—we want [Johns Creek] to be equally as successful.”
The two are willing to put in the extra time to make that happen, and frequently take bike rides or make Starbucks runs for the sole purpose of discussing strategy. In running the program, Jones says he and Schonder often get “lumped together” by people outside their business, but make no mistake: the two each have distinctly different roles in shaping its success. Jones, the business guru, has gradually gravitated away from coaching to focus on the bigger picture—including tumbling classes, school teams, and 100+ summer camps—while Schonder keeps his creative energy laser-focused on raising the bar for the all-star program. The result? A dynamic left-brain/right-brain-esque synergy.
“To me, [Roger] is the best in the business at what he does,” says Jones. “He’s constantly trying to make our program better and really takes the time to study the sport. He truly has an eye for detail and an ability to get his teams to follow through on those details.” Schonder returns the admiration, saying, “I really appreciate Casey’s ability to run our business effectively, but not make it feel like ‘work.’”
That particular attribute has become a central part of the gym’s philosophy and approach. “We’re not into hard work, we’re into smart work,” says Jones. “It’s all about trying to take the things we learn from each season and focus on getting better. We’ve incorporated different training methodologies and a lot more warm-up into our practices; our goal is to be at the forefront of training and not do things the way we’ve always done them.” To that end, he and Schonder now require their approximately 80 staff members to undergo several yearly trainings along with an annual retreat, and all coaches must be USASF-certified for all levels.
In that vein, Jones is reticent to limit the credit for Stingray All-Stars’ success to just himself and Schonder. “It literally takes every single one of us to do the job that we do,” shares Jones. “That’s the kind of thing I pride myself on—I think we have the best staff in the country. I’m just along for the ride.”
-Jen Jones Donatelli