The San Fernando High School, 2023 Cheer Team
The San Fernando High School cheer team and coaches posing with their medals and plaque after winning in their division in the CIF LA City championships. (Photo Courtesy of Ashley Maldonado)

When the San Fernando High School cheerleading team went into the recent CIF Los Angeles City championships, they were determined to do their best, but didn’t have high expectations of taking home the grand prize. So when the team was announced as the winner of its division, the first time in the school’s history, they were elated.

“It was beautiful to see and to see them so excited and hugging each other at the end of that performance,” Coach Ashley Maldonado said. “It just made everything worth it.”

On April 29, the team of 14 girls competed against eight other schools in their division, the all-girl Non-Tumbling Small Division, to take home the top prize. It’s the first time the school has won the championship since it began in 2018; they came close in 2019, finishing in second place.

“These kids have worked so hard and they have just gone through so many different obstacles in the last couple of years,” Maldonado said. “It just made me feel so excited for them and the passion that they had when they had practice and winning was just great to see.”

Practice for the competition began in January after the football season ended. The team downsized a bit, but it continued with its remaining members.

Those members are Rebecca Almanzar, Alexa De Castro, Camila Evangelista, Joceline Garcia, Giuliana Gomez, Jaslene Gonzalez, Brianna Jaramillo, Kimberly Lopez, Hazel Medina, Mia Ramirez, Natalia Rodriguez, Lianette Sotelo, Sophia Tolentino and Vianca Vargas.

Maldonado recalled her team feeling nervous the day before the championship, especially when they were discussing who they would be up against, including Cesar Chavez Learning Academies, Arleta High and Eagle Rock High Schools.

“Myself and Assistant Coach Daniela [Jaramillo] had to remind them that this wasn’t a do or die moment,” Maldonado said. “They had an exceptional season, and this one performance was not going to define it. We wanted them to go and be successful.”

Maldonado expressed how happy she was, not only for her entire team, but for the seniors who were able to finish their high school career strong. She pointed out that the girls who joined when they were freshmen never got the full experience of being on the cheer team due to the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting the competitions in 2020 and 2021.

“They [seniors] keep saying, ‘I can’t believe it’s over,’ which seniors say all the time … but then I look back and I say, ‘Wow, you guys did miss a lot. You guys lost out on a lot of time, a lot of growth and learning,’” Maldonado said. “It really is exciting that they were able to pull together and they were able to continue and finish the season.”

One of those seniors is De Castro, one of the leaders on the cheer team who joined when she was a freshman.

“I think it was kind of rough for me because cheer was always a daily routine — every day after school,” De Castro said. “I think it was just hard not going to practice and because it’s something I’ve always been doing since I was little. When the pandemic hit, it was just weird that I didn’t go to practice.

“I wasn’t with my coaches and my teammates; I was just home. I didn’t know what to do because that’s something that was a part of my routine every day.”

Going into the competition, De Castro said she wasn’t looking to win the championship. Rather, she just wanted to compete alongside her team. Needless to say, she was elated when they won.

“Knowing that our team was able to win [CIF LA] City just made me so happy — happy that I was able to leave on a good note with the team that I made new friendships with,” De Castro said. “It was just so good to win with those people.”

She plans to attend Glendale Community College after she graduates and go into nursing while still finding time to compete in cheer. Although De Castro couldn’t compete all four years, she looks back on her time with the team with fondness.

“I’m proud of myself for being a leader and being on set with my team and helping, so I feel very positive that I’m leaving on a positive note and leaving the team in a good way because the rest can also teach the incoming [freshmen].”

Another senior was Jaramillo, who also joined the team when she was a freshman. Similar to De Castro, she too thought her team wasn’t going to win given who their competitors were. When they were announced the winners, it didn’t register with her at first. Nonetheless, she was happy with the results.

“It just felt that everything that we had worked towards, all the blood, sweat and tears that went into other practices was worth it,” Jaramillo said. “It was a really good feeling, to be honest.”

Her time on the cheer team was also severely negatively impacted by the pandemic. In 2020, the team only participated in one competition before schools shut down. For Jaramillo, who came to San Fernando High for its cheer team, it was a bitter pill to swallow.

“It was disappointing because I was waiting so long, ever since I was little,” Jaramillo said. “I’ve always wanted to be here, so when my years were cut short, it was upsetting, but I kind of made the best of it when I did come back.”

She plans on going to LA Mission College next before transferring to a university, where she wants to study to be a clinical psychologist so she can help others who are struggling with their mental health.

The championship win was already a victory in itself, but being able to finish strong after only being able to compete for two years made it memorable for Jaramillo.

“Winning CIF is already a special thing, it’s what every high school cheerleader tries to work for … but it felt like a good way to end,” Jaramillo said. “It was perfect.”