BARTOW — Lori Jolliff dealt with the sideways looks and the questions all day Monday.
It’s the sort of thing that is to be expected when a known fan of the Tennessee Volunteers dons the gear of an SEC rival — in this case, the Alabama Crimson Tide on the day of the College Football Playoff Championship.
But what might be considered heretical to some was simply the veteran head coach of the Bartow High cheerleading program showing support for two Yellow Jacket alumni. Carlos Lopez and Andrew Davis are members of the cheerleading program for the Crimson Tide and were on the sidelines cheering at the big game.
For Jolliff, that’s enough to justify cheering for a lifelong rival.
“I’m so proud of them,” Jolliff said. “Roll Tide — I never thought I’d say that.”
Of course, with the growth and success of Bartow’s cheerleading program and its alumni, the number of college allegiances the veteran coach and her staff will have to navigate will continue to be increasingly complex.
Yellow Jacket alumni are cheerleading or have cheered for the programs at UCF, USF, Kansas, Kentucky, Morehead State and many more.
And why wouldn’t such elite programs want cheerleaders from Bartow? After all, the program has won five consecutive FHSAA cheerleading state championships — six total, including a state title in 2008 — two national championships and a championship at Worlds in 2018.
The program has come a long way since Jolliff, an Auburndale native, decided to take the job 16 years ago for what she figured would have been a short stint.
“I was just going to fill in for a little bit — and here I am 16 years later,” she said.
Several things have changed since then. Once cheerleading became a sanctioned sport by the FHSAA, for instance, there was a sea-change in the way the sport was regarded.
“Once you can say that ‘hey, there’s a state championship attached to the sport’ — I think that’s a game-changer,” Jolliff said.
Winning has become a tradition for the program at Bartow, which includes successful junior varsity and middle-school teams, also. The program has cultivated a family feel, in part because there are many family threads that run through it.
For instance, senior Kamarie Owens grew up around the program thanks to her older sister, Kayla Long, who was a part of the Yellow Jackets championship team in 2008.
“I was really nervous (to join the team) because they’d built up their name and it was such a high-stakes program,” Owens said. “(My sister) encouraged me and said it was a really great program that would teach me life lessons.”
There are siblings currently on the roster, too. Gauge Stricklin is a senior and his brother, Lathan, is a sophomore. For Gauge, joining the team when he got to Bartow High was an opportunity to join a winning culture. With that said, he still recalls his surprise when confronted with how hard the team trains for its routines.
“I didn’t realize how strong you actually have to be,” Gauge said.
The competitive cheerleading calendar for the FHSAA has hit its stretch run, with the regional meet scheduled for Jan. 11 and the Florida High School Competitive Cheerleading State Championships scheduled for Jan. 31-Feb. 1 at the O’Connell Center on the campus of the University of Florida in Gainesville.
For a program that is no stranger to chasing and making history, the goal is simply to maintain the standard.
“Our motto this year is ‘uphold the tradition,’” Jolliff said. “We just want to respect what people have done in the past — and we also want to be better.”