LEE COUNTY NEIGHBORS: Hanging up the pompoms

It’s rare that Suzanne Dennis is at a loss for words. For 23 years Dennis constantly used her words to teach, encourage, scold and comfort the teenagers who made up Saltillo High School’s cheerleading squad.
Before the Saltillo Tigers’ home football game Friday night,Dennis sat on the home sideline bench and voiced words of support to this year’s cheerleaders as they led a group of elementary-age girls through a series of cheers.
When the performance was over, Dennis noticed something unusual. The high school cheerleaders walked to the bench and began surrounding her. Already suspecting something was going on, Dennis began looking around the girls to see what was happening.
“I saw people coming out, and I recognized them,” said Dennis, 49. “I was speechless. I had no clue.”
To Dennis’ left were a line of about 35 people, walking in single file from the end zone gate down the muddy sideline to the bench area. Each person carried a rose and the common bond of how much Dennis shaped their lives.
The former cheerleaders and the school paid a surprise pregame tribute to Dennis, who served as the school’s cheerleader sponsor/coach from fall 1986 until this past spring. It was an emotional show of love and appreciation for a person who was not only a cheer coach, but who became a mother figure, a work colleague and a friend.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been more humbled and honored,” Dennis said after taking a group photo with the past and current SHS cheerleaders. “That was awesome.”

Making it fun
Dennis, who joined the Saltillo High faculty in 1985, estimated about 150 people cheered for Saltillo High under her guidance. The past cheerleaders who took part in the ceremony ranged from the first squad to the 2009 graduates.
“Some of them I haven’t seen since they graduated 20 years ago,” Dennis said.
The cheerleaders presented Dennis a plaque and 26 roses —one for each she led the cheer squad and three in memory of cheerleaders who are deceased.
The bond between the cheer coach and each cheer squad begins at summer cheerleading camp and it carries on throughout the school year. The cheerleaders spend hours together working on cheers and stunts, drawing signs and banners and encouraging fellow students and the crowd to cheer for the school’s teams.
“Fun was my main goal,” Dennis said. “I have memories that will last a lifetime. I’ll treasure the memories.”
The time they spent together helped build the friendship between Dennis and her cheerleaders.
“She was like another parent,” said Neeley Moore, a 2003 Saltillo graduate who addressed the crowd on behalf of the cheerleaders at the ceremony. “She didn’t mind encouraging you or getting on to you. We actually spent more time with her than our own family a lot of times. She’s been an influence to us, not just cheerleading but everything. I’m glad she’s finally getting the recognition she deserves. It’s been a long time coming.”
Dennis said cheerleading has evolved from a group that builds school spirit to a unit that competes against other schools on the regional and state levels.
“You have to have a lot of athleticism in cheerleading now because it’s so competitive,” she said. “Most states consider cheerleading as a sport. Mississippi still looks at it as a sports activity.”
The Saltillo cheer squad has been a coed unit in recent years
with the addition of males, and some were in the lineup Friday to honor Dennis.
“She was strict at times,” said A.J. Dillard, who cheered for Saltillo before his graduation in 2007, “but other times you could have fun. You had your job and you had to get it done, but you had fun in the meantime.”
Karen Letson, a 1989 Saltillo grad who’s now the assistant principal at Guntown Middle School, said the way Dennis communicated with the cheerleaders made an impact on their lives.
“We had devotionals and at camp we had a talk every night,” she said. “You don’t think back then how much influence she’s had until you get older and you reflect on the things that were said and done.”

Time for a change
After 23 years of working with the cheerleaders, Dennis decided earlier this year it was time for a change. She originally planned to share the coaching duties with Stephanie Box, a Saltillo High teacher and herself a former Tiger cheerleader.
“Stephanie was one of my girls for a long time, and her older sister was a cheerleader, too,” said Dennis, who still has her teaching position at the school. “We had decided to do it together this year. But sometime in June, I decided it was time to hang up the pompoms. It was just time.”
Box, who graduated from Saltillo in 1995, said Dennis’ assistance has made the transition go well.
“I didn’t realize it was such a big responsibility until I took it over, and then I saw how important her job was to the girls,” Box said. “It’s huge shoes to fill, but she’s been there to help me.”
Box wants to make cheerleading as enjoyable for future Saltillo students as Dennis made it for her.
“She’s a mentor, a friend, another mama – all the same time,” she said. “We knew exactly what she expected of us at all times. At the same time, she was there to make it fun and wanted us to have fun.”
Of the former cheerleaders who felt Dennis’ motherly influence the past 23 years, one knew it best – Dennis’ own daughter. Meg Dennis was a Saltillo cheerleader until her graduation in 2005.
“My mom is the best,” Meg said. “She’s just awesome. She’s my mom.”

Contact Neighbors Editor Bobby Pepper at (662) 678-1592.

Click here for a photo gallery of Suzanne Dennis ceremony.

Bobby Pepper/Lee County Neighbors