Year 4 of the Sacred Hearts Academy competitive cheer dynasty is as fierce as ever.
The three-time state Hawaii High School Athletic Association Medium Division state champions are revved up despite the postponement of the sport until early 2021. Four of the Lancers earned All-American honors over the weekend from the Universal Cheerleaders Association (UCA).
Cayla Cabanban, Alissa De Smet, Jacelyn Tanuvasa and Andromeda Tong were named among the best in the country. Gaining individual accolades on top of team accomplishments is much more challenging than usual in the midst of a COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown.
“Four of the kids entered (from Sacred Hearts) and for all four to get it was a big surprise,” Lancers coach Cadey Vakauta said on Monday. “They’re going up against cheerleaders from across the nation, so it’s special for them to get this award.
A fifth honoree, Ku‘ulei Santiago of Kamehameha, is a former SHA student who transferred to Kapalama to begin high school.
In years past, UCA judges came to the islands and scored routines in person. This year’s circumstances meant that competitors had to follow the routine guidelines and send video footage to UCA. The process took roughly two days before results were announced.
“I feel good. It’s a really great opportunity for me and my teammates to know that hard work will pay off,” said Cabanban, a senior co-captain. “You do what you’ve got to do no matter what.”
That meant a lot of individual workouts at home, much like other student-athletes are grinding through with fall sports on hiatus. Cabanban, now a four-time All-American, noted that the process normally involves a home crowd and a lot of support from SHA families and fans.
“This time, you have to stay up, not having a crowd there. I had to try to make like I was with the crowd and put myself there, like last year’s camp,” said Cabanban, who has a 3.5 grade-point average and is hoping to cheer at Alabama next year.
De Smet, also a senior co-captain, was in her first try at All-American.
“I saw my teammates do it last year, so that gave me a boost. If they can do it, I can do it, too. The (routine) is the same dance, but shows off our highest skill because each person has a different highest skill,” said De Smet, who has a 3.7 GPA and hopes to attend NYU.
Tanuvasa, a junior, noted that the team has remained close, at least virtually with workouts via Zoom.
“It made me happy knowing that my hard work paid off even though we haven’t been able to practice as a team or attend any (summer) camps. It’s definitely harder to push ourselves without our support, but we have to stay focused and keep that drive for another state title,” she said.
Tanuvasa has a 3.7 GPA and is aiming to attend USC.
Tong is the youngest of the four All-Americans from SHA, but her level of gratitude is undeniable.
“Shout out to Coach Cadey and our whole cheer program,” she said.
Gail Gukushima is SHA’s assistant coach.
“And shout out to all our cheer families,” Tong added. “The support we have is incredible. Our coaches are super understanding and I’m so thankful for how they’ve helped me grow as an athlete and student, teaching us to be responsible for our future.”
Tong put in the work to balance out her routine.
“For me, it was more the dance compared to my tumbling. I have my tumbling down, but I had to focus on the dance,” she said.
The life of a student-athlete has changed, but the Lancers have adapted.
“Monday through Friday, we either do a Zoom practice or coach gives us a list of tumbling and conditioning to do,” Tong said. “Because we don’t have a place to weight train available during this pandemic, we do more cardio and do more exercises utilizing our body weight.”
Cabanban isn’t about to relax. A four-peat at states is beginning to materialize in the vision of the Lancers.
“If you want to succeed in life and school, you’ve got to put in the work. Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard,” she said of the quest for another state crown. “It’s very special to me because my freshman year is the first one we won at Sacred Hearts. The person with less talent who works their butts off, they will succeed. I just go by that quote every day.”
Coach Vakauta is hoping the pandemic simmers soon. Preparing for the competitive cheer season, which could begin in January, requires time and repetition.
“I know it’s a hard time for everybody and they’re all worried about whether we’re going to have a season or not. I just want to remind them that it’s in God’s plan. We are very grateful to have had the experiences we’ve had these past years. It’s an accomplishment to experience it once. Some people never get that opportunity, so hold on tight to that rather than the negative of not being able to compete in the summer and fall,” Vakauta said.
At the JAMZ national championships in Las Vegas last February, the Lancers teamed up with Saint Louis to repeat as grand champions. They had the best jumps award, placed first in Level 3 Co-Ed, first in Level 3 Overall and second in sideline cheer along with the grand championship.
Santiago, a senior, filmed her routine on the roof of her family’s garage.
“I was the only one from Kamehameha. I always wanted to try All-American, so when I found out about the dance portion, that’s my favorite. I’ve improved so much over the years,” she said.
In addition to the varsity honorees, three Sacred Hearts middle schoolers earned All-American status in the younger division. Railey Baltunado, Aileen Araujo and Aureanna Vendiola are prepared to carry on the Lancers’ tradition of excellence.
“It’s really crazy. It wasn’t really that hard because I had the skills that I learned from cheering, and I had to add the dance to it,” Araujo said. “I practiced it the whole week until I got it down.”
Baltunado made the best of her environment.
“I don’t have a back yard, so it was really challenging. I practiced on the roof top. It was really windy,” she said. “I feel excited and proud because this is my first time competing in the All-American.”
Vendiola actually thrived in a quieter setting as she performed her routine.
“It was very different. It would usually be in front of everyone and it was more nerve-wracking. This time, we were in in front of our family members. I feel very proud for representing my school. It’s going to be a lot of hard work and dedication to the team,” she said.
The expectations of the SHA program one part of being a Lancer. The competition, Vendiola said, never ends.
“It’s going to be a lot harder this year,” she said. “The other teams are stepping up.”