LAKEVILLE, Minn. – The Blazing Cats adapted floor hockey team is warming up for the year’s biggest game.
“If we win tonight, we’ll go to state next weekend,” an assistant coach tells her players.
But while the players run through their drills in the gym, other preparations are underway in the hall.
“Yep,” says Kris Katzenmeyer, over the echoes of well-rehearsed cheers. “This is our warm up too.”
Six girls with red skirts and matching hair ribbons make their way from the hallway to the court.
The Blazing Cats cheerleaders are in the house.
Katzenmeyer, their coach, believes them to be the only cheer squad in the metro made up of teens with cognitive challenges, cheering for athletes facing challenges of their own.
“It allows them an opportunity to be part of the school culture,” Katzenmeyer says, “kind of be like a regular kid.”
Katzenmeyer, who is also special education teacher for most of the girls, took over the volunteer coaching job when she arrived at Lakeville South High School last fall.
“They usually come to school wearing their uniforms,” she says. Katzenmeyer sees both the excitement and the growth cheerleading has brought the girls. “I think it helps them just be comfortable, kind of being on center stage.”
That’s certainly true for sophomore Macey Blaschko, whose smile seemingly never leaves her face.
“I get really excited,” she says. “I’ve been wanting to be a cheerleader ever since I was a kid.”
The cheerleading squad was the brainchild of Katzenmeyer’s predecessor Kelly Gorman and Lois Schalesky, an occupational therapist with the Lakeville school district.
The co-workers were inspired after watching some varsity cheerleaders who’d stopped by to cheer on an opposing adopted team.
“We started talking about it, we could do this,” Schalesky says. “And then we started creating cheers, we made our own cheers.”
Four years later, the girls appear both at home and away games, cheering for both the adapted floor hockey and adapted soccer teams. Blazing Cats teams are made up of players from Lakeville, Burnsville and Farmington.
“Everybody just stepped up and said, we really love this, that we have a cheer squad supporting the adaptive sports,” Schalesky says.
It’s possible no one loves the squad more than the girls’ parents.
“She’s just gained so much confidence in herself,” says Deb Brown, whose daughter Emily is part of the cheer team. “So much is hard for her and this is something she can feel good about.”
Emily, who will graduate in the spring, has been part of the team since it started.
“Yeah, it’s my last year,” Emily says, tears welling in her eyes. “I’m going to miss everybody.” On cue, teammates pull her close for a group hug.
“This has been a big part of her life,” says Katzenmeyer, looking on.
The game ends with a win for the Blazing Cats and trip to state.
Their cheerleaders will be there too, adapting nicely to yet another stage.