After nearly 30 years spent guiding multiple cheerleading programs, Ipo Chang has developed a knack for identifying and molding leaders. Case in point, the fifth-year coach of Pac-Five’s cheerleading program has relied on a pair of seniors in Kapua Fernandez and Danielle Ikeda to guide the Wolfpack to championship heights.
The captains have also risen to the occasion when tasked with turning multiple setbacks within the program from potentially debilitating tragedy to triumph.
Cheerleading squads compete based on the size of their team, as crews of 12 to 20 are designated "large," while those with 11 or fewer fall under the "medium" classification. Within each competition, cheerleaders are judged based upon their execution of eight disciplines, including tumbling, cheering, pyramid, dance and motion.
Pac-Five recently won its second consecutive Interscholastic League of Honolulu championship and will vie for the ultimate prize at the Zippy’s/HHSAA State Cheerleading Championships at the Blaisdell Arena on Saturday. A year after finishing third in the state in the large division, the Wolfpack will compete in the medium division in a wide-open field that includes 12 other squads.
"I’m just really happy to see how much we’ve grown," said Ikeda, a senior at University Laboratory School who hopes to continue cheerleading at the collegiate level while pursuing a career in the medical field. "As Pac-Five, we were known as nothing, but over the years we’ve kept improving and now we’re ILH champs for the second time. It’s such a blessing."
AS A CLUSTER of smaller schools, Pac-Five faces logistical hurdles that larger institutions don’t deal with, including enduring long bus rides to practice at an off-site gymnastics facility in Waipio. Additionally, the Wolfpack’s lone male cheerleader, Christian Vasconcellos, also plays football for Pac-Five, and was only able to practice with the cheerleading squad for a few hours on weekends until his season on the gridiron ended.
"It takes a little more coordination as opposed to a team with (participants) that all come from one school," Chang said of her eclectic squad that features student-athletes from six schools.
The group also had to overcome the absence of one its up-and-coming teammates in Tia Fuchigami, a would-be sophomore who nearly lost her life to kidney failure and is currently undergoing treatment in California after recently receiving a kidney transplant.
Chang credits the leadership of Fernandez and Ikeda, as well as the guidance of assistant coaches DaJuan Parker, Ward Kea and Sharon Gordon — the coach’s daughter, who has also battled multiple afflictions that resulted in the amputation of her leg — for allowing the team to thrive while also dedicating each performance to Fuchigami.
"We dedicated all of our competitions and everything we did to her, and this year, we also dedicated the season to Aunty Ipo’s daughter, Sharon," Ikeda said. "Both of them have been sick, and I think just knowing how hard we have worked means a lot."
Added Chang: "We almost lost (Sharon) four times last year, so it was a really emotional time for us. It was really hard to see the two of them go through that, so each competition is dedicated to them. As they continue to fight for their lives, Pac-Five continues to fight — period."
FERNANDEZ, A SENIOR at Maryknoll, and Ikeda have followed similar paths through the Pac-Five program, and both earned second-team ILH all-star honors as freshmen. The pair also picked up first-team league honors as sophomores and juniors, and while the official voting done by league coaches will not be revealed until after the state competition, both are in line to finish their senior campaigns as All-ILH performers yet again.
"It’s amazing how we can come from all over the island and become one team," Ikeda says.
Both student-athletes are flyers — the aptly named cheerleaders who are tossed into the air and perform a series of spins and flips prior to being caught by teammates who make up the base.
Chang said that while Fernandez is fully capable of handling the aerial skill set, Ikeda was used as the primary flyer this season to ensure that she would be caught safely. The coach explained that while multiple flyers can potentially be used in routines, the level of skill and trust needed to ensure the safety of all participants increases exponentially.
"Both of them are captains, and they exemplify the skills necessary to be a cheerleader," Chang said of her dynamic duo. "They’re mirrors of each other. They push one another in tumbling and stunting — it’s such a good camaraderie.
"I really want them to excel, and those are two of my leaders that can take the kids out on the floor and get the job done."