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Something to cheer about

NC’s DuRant signs to be a cheerleader at Wingate

Posted: May 18, 2017 1:21 p.m.
Updated: May 19, 2017 1:00 a.m.
Tom Didato/C-I

NCHS SENIOR ABIGAIL DURANT signed a National Letter of Intent to continue her academic and cheerleading pursuits at Wingate University while flanked by her grandfather, Jerry Horton, and her parents, Kim and Mike DuRant. Standing, from left, are North Central High School principal David Branham, KCSD Board chairman Ron Blackmon, NC Middle School athletic director Rebecca Greenway Edmunds, NCHS assistant cheerleading team coach Kayla Threatt, NCHS head cheerleading coach Sam West, Abigail’s younger sister, Sara Grace DuRant, NC athletic director Louis Clyburn and NCHS girls’ basketball head coach Mitch Lowder.

There were times last season when North Central girls’ basketball coach Mitch Lowder needed someone to go inside and collect a big rebound. At others, his young team may have needed a healthy dose of senior leadership to help steady the ship.

On more than one occasion, he admitted, he would look across the court and spot a girl who could fill both roles. Only problem was, Abigail DuRant was attired in a cheerleader’s uniform and was urging on her former teammates from the stands.

The decision to step away from playing hoops to cheering on the Knights and Lady Knights proved to be a smart one as the North Central senior signed a National Letter of Intent to continue her academic and competitive cheerleading pursuits at Wingate University.

For those thinking that you do not have to be an athlete to be a cheerleader, well, times have changed; yelling out and memorizing cheers are only part of the package. Cheer teams now go through rigorous training for routines which include a healthy dose of gymnastics and performing stunts.

And, if you are inclined to believe that cheerleaders are non-athletes, try this on for size. In the fall, DuRant was a middle hitter for the Lady Knight’s ultra-successful volleyball squad. In the winter months, from her freshman through juniors years, she was a starter for the Lady Knights on the hardwood and was regularly one of the team’s top rebounders even though she was outsized in the paint area more times than not.

“Some people think that in cheerleading, you don’t do much and it’s not really a sport,” DuRant said following her signing ceremony held inside the school’s gym. “I’ve experienced this year that it is definitely a sport and that a lot of conditioning goes into it, along with time and effort.”

In order to be invited to be a part of the cheer squad at Wingate, DuRant went to a tryout at the school’s campus in North Carolina. While there, she caught the eye of cheerleading coach Kelly Sheppard, who offered the North Central senior the chance to cheer on the Bulldogs’ student-athletes.

“Abigail really stood out at tryouts with her hard work ethic and ability to quickly make corrections,” Sheppard said of the selection process. “When high school seniors attend college, tryouts there are more changes than they expect. Motion preference change coach to coach, stunting is different, not to mention a new people and atmosphere. Abigail quickly adapted and showed improvement daily. 

“It is attitudes like Abigail’s that a coach dreams of. We look forward to working with her and going after a championship title in 2018.”

Gone are the days, Sheppard explained, in which cheerleading squads rooted on their respective teams and called it a day. In 2017, Wingate placed second at the CANAM National Championships in Myrtle Beach. Sheppard said she and her team look forward to attending the National Cheerleaders Association (NCA) College Nationals in Daytona Beach, Fla., in 2018.

The chance to compete at the highest level in the sport appeals to DuRant. “Definitely,” she said with a smile when asked of the chance to compete in national events. “That’s a really big deal.”

DuRant was recruited by Sheppard as would be the case for any prospective student-athlete. After getting an up-close view of the school, DuRant said there was too much not to like about Wingate, aside from the cheerleading program, for her not co give her pledge to the South Atlantic Conference member institution.

“I just loved it so much,” she said of her collegiate decision. “As soon as I walked in there, the atmosphere, the athletics and everything … it just felt like home. They showed me around the campus and took me to see the dorms. It’s just such a great school.”

DuRant started cheering when she was a sixth-grader at North Central Middle School. By the time she entered the seventh grade, she was drawn to playing volleyball and basketball for the Lady Patriots before continuing to play both at North Central High School.

Cheerleading, however, was still in her blood and thanks to the efforts of NCHS cheer team coaches Sam West and Kayla Threatt, DuRant was welcomed back onto the sidelines. She credited both coaches for helping her get to this point and helping her to fall back in love with cheering.

Cheering in the winter meant the end of DuRant’s basketball-playing days. She admitted to missing being on the court with her friends on more than one occasion last season.

“There was a part of me that wished that I could do both but, overall, I was very happy with the decision that I made to cheer,” she said. “I thought about it and just fell in love with the sport.”

Given her having played volleyball, basketball and having a knowledge of sports, in general, Durant said it helps knowing what is taking place on the field or, on the court rather than just knowing what cheer or, stunt to perform along with when and in what order. She is already looking forward to her first assignment come the fall.

“It’s just exciting getting to cheer on the football players,” said North Central’s 2016 Homecoming Queen. “The athletics are great and getting to see that atmosphere at Wingate University is going to be fun.”

Sheppard said her cheer squad must be adaptable and, in the late fall, will cheer on the football team and the basketball squads, sometimes, in the space of a few days.

“The Wingate University Cheerleaders have had a history of growth and excellence,” she said of her program. “The team cheers football season and men and women’s basketball seasons. After those seasons are complete, they begin preparing for nationals. 

“Off the field, the team is also involved with various community service activities. Students selected to cheer at Wingate University are expected to participate in all squad activities: summer practices, team clinic, all football games, (basketball) Midnight Madness, men’s and women’s basketball games and tournaments, all practices and weight training opportunities ---two- to three-times a week --- fund-raisers, judging opportunities and performances.”

Weight training and conditioning, DuRant said, is no longer the exclusive domain of student-athletes competing in the traditional stick and ball sports. She said she got a taste of that hard work while at North Central.

“There’s a lot of running involved,” she said of the work needed to be put in to become a cheerleader, “which I didn’t expect coming from volleyball or basketball. There is a lot of core training involved for stunting.”

Sheppard said she had a tough task paring the final list of Wingate cheerleaders for 2017-18 to just 28 members. “Our team has never added so much talent at a tryout,” she said.

“Unfortunately, we had to make a tough decision and cut a lot of talent, while keeping 28 members. I believe that these girls have seen just how hard people are ready to work to be a Wingate cheerleader and that should drive them to be their best and apply themselves at everything they do.”

Sheppard went on to point out that her team is not only talented on the field and court but in the classroom as well at Bulldogs cheerleader posted a 3.0 GPA after the fall semester in 2016. She does not expect a drop in that area and was more than happy to add Abigail DuRant to a team which wins on the field, inside the gym as well as in the academic buildings on campus.

“I’m expecting the same or better once our spring grades come in,” she said. “The Wingate admission team has really raised the standards. I know that this incoming class will prove themselves to be well-rounded and excel in the classroom.”

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