MARICOPA — Local cheer gym Rockstar Cheer Arizona has endured a lot of change over the past 15 months, but they’re back at the top with their senior coed Level 3 team Journey scooping up first place and the title of world champion in early May.

The 21 cheerleaders made their way to Florida to compete May 3-5 at the All Star World Championship, an annual international competition that brings together over 9,000 cheer teams to battle for championship titles.

“To watch them walk on that stage was incredible,” said coach and co-owner of Rockstar Cheer Beth Mundell. “I had four graduating seniors this year, and some have been with me for almost the entire 10 years. To give them that (win) as their graduating piece — I was just in tears.”

Journey is made up of All Star cheerleaders that range in age from 12 to 18, and the competitive cheer team also placed second at the National Cheerleader Association All Star Nationals earlier in their season. Many of the teammates on Journey have known one another for the entire 10 years and consider each other family.

Flyer Eliza Sanderson, 15, described the moment she found out her team had won.

“I was feeling super happy and relieved, definitely,” Eliza said. “Putting in all the hard work that we did during practices paid off there.”

Teammate and base Morgan Mundell said it came down to the team’s determination.

“We were just so determined to get it,” Morgan said. “We were kind of just like, ‘This is what the world threw at us, and this is what we’re gonna do back.’”

The teams celebrated their big win with a trip to Disney World Orlando and Universal Studios afterward.

Rockstar Cheer’s other teams also placed well in Worlds, with Junior Level 2 team Radiohead placing 10th in the finals and Mini Level 1 team Little Mix placing eighth in the finals. Both Journey and Radiohead teams secured a paid bid after they swept the board at the eCheer Holiday Classic last December, with four first-place wins and Journey being crowned overall event grand champion.

As the name implies, eCheer was a virtual competition — and the first of the competitive season last year.

“We’ve always done well, but we’ve never had a season like this one ever,” Mundell said proudly.

This past decennial season was unusual not just in the number of wins for Rockstar Cheer. In March 2020, the onslaught of the pandemic came so quickly that one day, mere hours before practice, it became apparent to Mundell that they were going to have to shutter their doors and endure the storm of COVID.

Maricopa Rock Star Cheer winner of The Allstar World Championship

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“We literally contacted our families at about three o’clock one day and said, ‘We’re not having practice at five,’” Mundell said. “The bottom dropped out really, really fast. … It was really scary because we built this program. This is a very hometown, grassroots gym.”

She and her co-owner, Julie Cancellieri, had to scramble to find ways of keeping the gym afloat, but Mundell could not account for the outpouring of community and parental support they received.

A combined effort of the Ak-Chin Indian Community and the city of Maricopa provided much-needed financial support to the business, which sits on Ak-Chin land.

“Oh, my God, it was humbling,” Mundell said. “I could see that people believed in what we were doing. Our parents that kept paying tuition when we were closed — that was a big risk for them, because we could have shut down and they would have lost that investment. But they trusted us that we were going to hold to our word.”

And they managed to do more than hold to their word. The teams pushed above and beyond what even Mundell thought was possible in a year riddled with so many obstacles. Three months of closure meant the cheerleaders were practicing entirely via Zoom, with members practicing routines and conditioning wherever they could find space at home.

Even when they came back together, there were strict no-contact and mask-wearing guidelines to uphold. So Mundell got creative, using weighted backpacks and pool noodles as stand-ins for flyers — reaching into every resource she had. Finally, in August and only four months before their first competition, the cheerleaders were able to stunt again for the first time.

“The minute they could stunt, I don’t think I’ve ever seen happier kids in my entire career, they were so excited,” Mundell said. “We could only do 10 minutes at a time, hand sanitizing in between. We knew the parents were counting on us to be as vigilant as we could, because they were trusting their kids with us in a pandemic.”

Mundell points to this gratitude that made her teams unstoppable this past season. Her teams would often practice with no idea when they might be able to meet next, as exposures and quarantines could upend the schedule at any time. This, Mundell says, made them bring their best effort to every practice.

“They realized how important it was. They realized that it was something they could take for granted very easily and all of a sudden it was gone,” Mundell said. “Gratitude is probably the most powerful force there is, and these kids realized how much they needed each other. … It’s just a ton of gratitude, a ton of perspective.”

Not only did Rockstar Cheer secure more titles than ever before this past season, they also grew in size. Pre-pandemic, Mundell estimates she had 225 kids enrolled in her gym for All Star Competitive cheer, tumbling, gymnastics and recreational cheer. She lost 90 kids over the course of the beginning months of the pandemic — though not a single All Star cheerleader.

After the gym’s closure, however, Mundell saw a return of those 90 students and then some, with her current numbers sitting around 275. Meanwhile, her All Star team has seen continued growth, up from 46 in the 2019-20 season to 97 this upcoming competitive season.

On July 1, Rockstar Cheer will open back up to it full breadth of offerings, including a “parent and me” class for 2- to 3-year-olds. To find out more about Rockstar Cheer, log onto RockstarCheer.com/Arizona/About-us or find their Facebook page under Rockstar Arizona.

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Katie Sawyer covers Maricopa and the surrounding area for PinalCentral, including city, education, business, crime and more. She can be reached at ksawyer@pinalcentral.com.