By JENNA EBBERS
Nebraska News Service
Katrina Kohel traveled over 300 miles to represent the Morrill High School Lions at the Nebraska State High School Cheer and Dance competition in Grand Island last month – alone.
Kohel, a 17-year-old senior, was the lone cheerleader on the mats at the Heartland Event Center in Grand Island, representing the school she’s cheered for since she was a freshman, a town of just over 900 people in Nebraska’s panhandle.
However, as the tune of Nicki Minaj’s Starships set off the first four portions of her Game Day routine, she was no longer alone.
Teams from across the state gathered to cheer her on as she danced, completed both situational and sideline cheers and performed Morrill High’s fight song.
“Pretty much the whole stadium was involved in my performance, which was really awesome,” Kohel said. “It was exciting. There’s no other way to explain it.”
Kohel’s family in the stands was limited, too. Her parents, Scott and Della Kohel were even further east in Omaha, coaching and cheering on her twin brother at the state wrestling tournament, where they watched her performance on Facebook Live.
“I was excited for her to still get the opportunity as an individual competitor instead of as a team, but I was nervous because she’s not real outspoken a lot of times,” Scott Kohel said. “It’s hard to be separated from her accomplishments and not be there to celebrate with her.”
Since her performance, Kohel has made national headlines for her solo appearance at the state competition, being featured in the Wall Street Journal, The New York Post, People Magazine, the Washington Post and more.
The cheer squad originally had three other girls on it until they all left the team for personal reasons around a week and a half before state, leaving only Kohel.
While Kohel said she isn’t normally an outgoing person, and despite early self-doubts, she chose to stick with it and finish her final cheer season.
“I knew that I had the support behind me,” she said. “And I knew that even though it was a long trip, I had it, and it was okay.”
Once the other three left, the game plan was forced to change. Kohel couldn’t perform the same routine by herself – stunts and certain moves had to be removed. With only over a week to work with, Kohel woke up at 6:45 a.m. every day leading up to the state competition to practice the modified routine with her coach. By performance time that Friday evening, she had it down and relied purely on muscle memory.
“Once I was actually on the floor getting ready to perform, my mind was just blank. It was just pure excitement and just knowing that I was ready,” Kohel said. “I could do it blindfolded, honestly.”
This was Kohel’s third time competing at the state cheer competition, and it was her favorite experience there, but not because she did it alone.
“I think it has more to do with the fact that I’ve been a cheerleader for so long, and being able to get out there one last time just made it that much more special to me,” Kohel said. “It wouldn’t have mattered if I was by myself or with my other three previous teammates.”
Kohel finished eighth out of 12 teams with a score of 77 out of 100 points and made her school proud, according to Jessica Stec, the principal at Morrill High.
“I think going out there really speaks volumes about the kind of person that she is. And just her courage to do something like that by herself,” Stec said. “It’s disappointing, for sure, that we didn’t have our squad there. But at the same time, that’s not what the focus is. Look what she was able to accomplish.”
However, this wasn’t even her first event in 24 hours; she competed against South Platte in the sub-district basketball game in Ogallala the night before.
Kohel traveled from Morrill to Ogallala that Thursday night, losing her last-ever basketball game. Shortly following the heartbreak loss, she and her grandparents trekked nearly 200 miles to Grand Island for the cheer competition.
“In small schools like this, kids do a lot of everything,” Stec said. “I think what Katrina has created here is just an opportunity for herself down the road because you don’t see many students put forth that much effort into everything the way she does.”
Kohel also participates in track and choir and played in the school band until the program was cut. After graduation this May, Kohel plans to attend the University of Nebraska at Kearney to study nursing and join the Air Force.
While her cheer career ended in an unexpected way, she’s happy to have the experience under her belt.
“I was just excited that I didn’t have my last opportunity to go to state taken away from me and that I was still going to be able to go,” Kohel said.
“Even if you don’t think you can’t do it, just give it a shot. You could surprise yourself,” she said.
Jenna Ebbers is a senior journalism major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.