Something to CHEER about: Netflix series highlights area college cheerleading dynasty
A new Netflix series features an area collegiate cheerleading dynasty.
"Cheer" debuted on Netflix this week.
The six episode docu-series follows the 40-member cheer squad at Navarro College.
"It's small, so you don't have those things that kids usually want when they're looking for a university: the big football environment, the big university, and the big town," said Head Cheer Coach Monica Aldama.
While Corsicana doesn't have a big-name college...it has Aldama.
"My goal was to be the best cheer program in the country," she says.
Under her leadership, the junior college's cheer program has become one of, if not the, best in the United States.
"We have a lot of kids who could have gone anywhere they wanted," Aldama told KWTX. "When they see our success--they're interested, but when they come down and see the family aspect of it--it keeps them here."
In her 25 years as head coach, she's brought the school 14 NCA National Cheerleading Championships and five Grand National Cheerleading Championships since the year 2000.
"I feel like I built this program, it's like my baby," said the mother of two. "It's hard to ever think about giving it up."
She never does give up: she wins--and Netflix took notice.
"It doesn't take very long to search on the internet to find Monica and Navarro," director Greg Whiteley. "As soon as I heard her voice, I immediately thought she would be an amazing main subject of a documentary series, she was incredibly passionate and you could hear how much she cared."
Aldama, who was "shocked" to get the call, says, next, they had to convince the school and it's new President, Kevin Fegan, to let them film.
"I had just started my presidency here, so there were lots of thoughts that I had," said Fegan. "In many cases, you're thinking of those things that might be less than positive."
After careful consideration, Fegan, and the school's Board of Trustees, gave the green light.
"We binged watched it...and I was very pleased," said Fegan. "A lot of people here, they don't fully know what she and the team put into their goals, their objectives, chasing their dreams...and if they watch this series, they certainly will know that."
However, Fegan thinks the value goes beyond the story.
"I think there's many lessons in there," said Fegan. "Whether you're involved in athletics, fine arts, business, industry, etc., there's certainly leadership lessons that Monica exhibits and illustrates, there's relationship lessons, team lessons...there's so many life lessons that individuals can learn and they're going to learn about it, not with people acting it or a script being written for it, but people living it."
The crew lived in a hotel in Corsicana while filming the show, off-and-on, from January to April of 2019.
"I think Corsicana is a really charming town," said Whiteley. "We loved our time there."
Whiteley, who also directed and produced the Netflix documentary series Last Chance U, said it was shooting that series in Scooba, Mississippi that made him realize how intense cheerleading was.
"I probably had the same misconceptions of what cheerleading was about as everyone else," said Whiteley. "What makes being a documentarian fun is you get to share this new thing with the world and explain it to other people."
He says the world he saw was so fascinating to him, he knew it would be to others, too.
"Unpacking that, trying to figure out why you guys are so crazy about this activity, particularly when it comes at such a cost, particularly when there doesn't seem to be an identifiable pay-day at the end: in football, you can have a lucrative life, and in many ways they face the same level of danger physically," said Whiteley. "Anytime someone loves something that much, they can't help but be interesting."
While filming hundreds of hours of footage of Navarro, certain story-lines started to standing out.
"I try to tell a good story in the most honest and entertaining way I can, I'm always hoping it's done in an organic way and serves the story of a particular person," said Whiteley. "I hope what people get out of it is the same thing I got out of out it: they're going to take you on a really great ride, how much they care about succeeding at the end of the year in Daytona."
While the Navarro College cheer team isn't really famous around Corsicana, in Daytona Beach, Florida--they're infamous.
"We have a crowd in Daytona, but not in Corsicana," said Aldama.
The coaches say, every year, the expectation at competition gets higher and higher.
"Everybody looks up to you," said Assistant Coach Andy Cosferent.
"Everybody looks to see 'what are they going to do next?'
Consferent says, while reaching the top is tough, it's much harder to stay there, so they try to work harder than anyone else.
"We try to not (lose) of course, we just try to make sure that, every time, we try to step it up one more step, one more little thing that we can do that is going to put us apart," said Consferent. "It takes more than just pom-poms and smiling and makeup and hair to do what we do at this competitive level."
But it's not all about the competition: as the series follows the team's journey to nationals in Florida, it highlights the stories of several team members.
"I love cheerleading because it's kind of an escape from my past," said third-year Navarro cheerleader Morgan Simianer.
The 22-year-old grew up poor in a broken home in Osage, Wyoming.
"I mean, just being on this team was a very big accomplishment, and an honor honestly," said Simianer. "I just saw videos and I just thought this team was incredible and I wanted to be a part of it."
However, she never thought landing a spot on the team would land her on Netflix.
"To be filmed, it was very nerve-wracking at first having a camera in your face all the time, but eventually we forgot they were even there," she said.
The crew would shoot the team for about 12-hours a day during filming.
Whiteley says they gravitated towards underdogs like Simianer and Jeremiah "Jerry" Harris, 20, of Chicago, another third-year Navarro cheerleader who used cheer to get through the death of his mother.
"People here have incredible stories, it's not just a girl raised by their mommy and daddy coming here getting everything they wanted as a kid and then getting pushed to here, everybody has different backgrounds," said Harris. "So what makes us different, is we have all of those (backgrounds), and we come together as one and become one cohesive unit and just love each other, inside and out."
Consferent, who was on the 2012-2013 championship team, says that love stretches to alumni.
"The love of the people that have been a part of the program before us, that's what sets us apart," said Consferent. "We're always going to have each other's back, no matter what."
Aldama agrees: the bond created by distinguishable upbringings has, over the years, created a family that sets the team apart.
"Cheerleaders are supposed to be perfect, they're supposed to be happy and perky, but that's not realistic, I mean, we're all human, we all go through things, and these kids come from all kinds of backgrounds, and they all come to this one place, and we're all working for this common goal," said Aldama. "It's just an amazing story."
Aldama's story starts in Alabama where she lived until her family moved to Corsicana when she was six.
After graduating from Corsicana High School, she went on to get a bachelor's degree in finance from the University of Texas business school in Austin and later a MBA from UT-Tyler.
She always thought she wanted to work on Wall Street, however, after a stint in Dallas, she and her high school sweetheart decided to stay in Corsicana.
"It's just relaxing and peaceful here, and you know everybody," said Aldama.
A friend of Aldama, the assistant baseball coach at Navarro College whose mom was her high school cheer coach, told her to apply for the open cheer coach job and teach math for the college.
"It's definitely not what I had intended to do, I wanted to live in the big city," said Aldama.
While she didn't end up on Wall Street, from management and leadership to crunching numbers for scoring and organization, Aldama has applied her business education to the cheer world.
"I did a lot of research, I learned, I studied other successful teams," said Aldama.
She says "smart cheerleading," the combination of being business-minded, prepared, hard-working, competitive, meticulous and consistent, is why they win.
"We put in lots of reps to work out the kinks, we put in lots of practice, a lot of hours to be the best we can be," said Aldama.
However, many say the real secret to Navarro's success is Aldama.
"I hope that I'm a big part of that, but it's just such a huge family now, I mean, I could count on anyone," said Aldama. "If I had to be away for weeks at at time, there's going to be people that come in and love this program as much as I do and take care of it."
Just as important as creating a winning program, Aldama says, is creating winning human beings.
"We just try to build good kids with good character, which I think is just as important," she says.
"Cheer" debuted on Netflix Jan. 8.
"It doesn't matter where you come from, it doesn't matter how hard your childhood was, you can still make it and be someone, no matter who you are, no matter what you've been through," said Cosferent. "I hope it encourages youth and other people to not give up on anything they want to achieve in life."
Aldama hopes people who watch the show will see the human side of cheerleading--and of cheerleaders.
"They should be treated with respect, they do work hard, they're not just jumping around acting silly," said Aldama. "I think that's just a big part, that maybe what the general population is not informed about is the competitive side of cheer, and the amount of work and hours that go into that."
She says "Cheer" is raw, real, and eye-opening.
"Just...you should watch the show," said Aldama. "It will pull at all of your emotions."
As soon as the series dropped Wednesday, team members anxious to see the finished product held 2 a.m. watch parties.
"I stayed up for six hours straight and watched it," said Simianer. "I was happy, I was sad, I was excited...I had all the emotions."
Simianer says the show captures what makes Navarro College cheerleading so special.
"This team is just incredible, the coaches we have, the athletes that are brought in, the community, the school--everything just ties in to make this program the top in the whole entire world," said Simianer. "I just couldn't be thankful enough to be a part of it."
Within hours of the debut, team members were getting feedback from people all around the globe.
"It's been insane," said Harris. "I just love how this is inspiring others to be amazing in their lives, too."
"It's an incredible feeling," he said.