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Sonoma County youth cheerleading team makes its way to nationals

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It’s hard not to cheer for Sonoma County’s newest competitive cheerleading team.

The team, Diamond, was started this summer by a cheerleading guru and two products of Healdsburg High School. The group practices at TCElite, a gym space they basically created themselves. The squad creates a supportive and positive environment for more than two dozen kids under 14.

And if all that doesn’t get you to hoot and holler, Team Diamond recently took first place at a regional meet in Santa Cruz, punching their tickets for a trip to Florida to compete for a national title in March.

“It’s been an incredible few months for all of us involved with this,” said Chuy Gonzalez Sandoval, 22, one of the team coaches and a key force behind making the whole program come to life. “The fact that we’ve been able to start a gym and put together a team to go to nationals in such a short time — it just blows my mind.”

The story of Team Diamond began earlier this year — June, to be exact. Sandoval and fellow coaches Thereasa Gravley and Chela Carr lamented the fact that there were no competitive cheer gyms between Santa Rosa and Ukiah, so they decided to create one. Gravley, 35, found a small space in a strip-mall on the south end of Healdsburg, behind the new roundabout and across the parking lot from the Parish Café. She signed a three-year lease and assumed the role of owner.

Initially, the TCElite space was a blank canvas — four walls and a floor. Over the course of a weekend, the trio (and a few friends and family members) laid down mats, painted, built an office and created a tiny store and a comfortable waiting area for parents by the front door.

“We worked hard to make the gym special,” said Gravley, who met her fellow coaches through the recreational Healdsburg Bulldogs team. “We wanted it to be a place where kids could feel at home.”

Once the gym was set up, the coaches launched the new team.

Today, Team Diamond is open to kids ages 9-14. The team competes in the recreational division of the United Spirit Association, a national organization for cheer squads not affiliated with a particular school program.

Being on the squad is hard work. Participants — as of now, they all happen to be girls — are expected to master a 2.5-minute routine that includes everything from jumping, running, dance, tumbling, tossing, chanting and stunts that include a human pyramid. Team members are expected to show up for practice at least three times a week. The coaches expect dedication and focus; kids must put their cellphones in a basket when they’re on the floor.

Tuition is $79 per month, less than what it costs to attend any of the other competitive cheer gyms in the area.According to Carr, 18, the team provides a nurturing environment for everyone involved. Coaches open the gym doors right after school and encourage girls to do their homework before practice starts at 5:30 p.m. Coaches are on hand to help girls with assignments if they have questions. On many nights, she and Sandoval also will spring for dinner.

“We want to provide them with a really safe place where everyone can be themselves,” said Carr, who cheered for 10 years before becoming a coach. She adds that teammates have had sleepover practices to bond and build camaraderie. “This is about so much more than cheer.”

Cheerleaders and their families certainly appreciate this sense of community.

Vanessa Rea, 13, said that by participating in Team Diamond she has met new people, made new friendships and created memories she expects she’ll cherish forever. “It’s a sisterhood,” she said.

Amy Cordtz, whose 11-year-old Savana is on the squad, notes that the vibe the TCElite coaches cultivate has empowered and enabled her daughter to transition from other competitive sports into cheerleading, which she had never done before.

“She did figure skating before, but cheerleading is new,” Cordtz said. “(The coaches) have made it easy.”

While Team Diamond is the flagship program at TCElite, coaches are developing other squads, too. As of press time, there were two other teams: Tiny Tumblers, for kids ages 3 to 6, and Team Ruby, a half-year group for kids ages 9-18.

Sandoval, also a graduate of Healdsburg High, said the gym is seeking to grow both squads. Sign-ups for Tiny Tumblers are ongoing, while sign-ups for Team Ruby close Nov. 12.

Looking forward for the main team, Nationals, formally known as the Quest Recreational Championship, will be held March 13-14 in Orlando. Team Diamond will need to raise money to defray the cost of the trip, and Sandoval said the squad already is planning several fundraisers including a car wash later this month.

The team is accepting outside donations and has set up a GoFundMe page to receive them. For more information, visit https://tcelitegym.wixsite.com/tcelitegym.

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