By Keri Welham
Their voices were soft, their gait was a shuffle but the cheerleaders from Cambridge Resthaven retirement village shook those blue tinsel pom-poms like their ageing hands were on fire.
The elderly sports fans were courtside at Mount Maunganui’s Harbourside Netball Centre today to support their team – the 12 and 13-year-olds from Cambridge Middle School’s top netball side. Cambridge Middle School (CMS) is among 110 netball teams at this week’s NZCT AIMS Games intermediate schools’ competition in Tauranga.
The eight cheerleaders sat in a row of deckchairs, with their backs to the wind and their team’s fleecy CMS jackets draped over their laps.
There was Garry Blayney, “92 not out” and a former principal of intermediate schools in Wainuiomata and Invercargill. He knew all about the pluckiness and determination of children this age.
And there was tall and fit Geoff Walker, 80, who once played in a Chatham Cup-winning Eastern Districts football team and vividly recalls the graft and gratification of sporting victory.
And Del Sinnott, 75, whose only grandchild lives in London. This courtside seat was a welcome substitute to being sideline at her own grandchild’s sports events, she said. She wondered aloud if the cheerleaders might attract some attention on social media.
“Facebook?” she said. “Twitter? Snapchat?”
The cheerleaders connected with CMS through Resthaven’s project and sales manager Sandy Bennett, whose daughter Ashley plays GK for the team. When the residents heard CMS was heading to the AIMS Games, they held a bake sale, raised $307, and had the players over for afternoon tea.
Over tea and cake, former insurance rep Jack Kildare, 77, introduced the girls to a mantra which helped him stay ahead of the competition back when he played golf with a handicap of just 2: It’s not over till it’s over.
As the team faced Baradene College in a lively first-round play-off, the cheerleaders were there. Jack held a wee sign printed with the mantra, which he unfurled and held aloft when needed.
But one cheerleader was missing. Netball fan Pat McEwan, 83, fell seriously ill this week and by Wednesday morning her family had gathered at her bedside. Just before the cheer squad left for the Games, she gave Sandy a message for the team: “Tell them to reach for the stars.”
CMS took the court undefeated in five games. They’d qualified top of their pool and hoped for a top 16 placing in New Zealand’s biggest netball tournament. Last year the school claimed 14th place.
The AIMS Games bring together 9300 competitors from 271 schools for a six-day multi-code sporting event. An estimated 7000 supporters make the pilgrimage to watch young New Zealanders compete at the event but few travel over the Kaimai Range in a retirement village van with pom poms and homemade signs.
Head cheerleader Alan Luxton, 84, led a chant: “Who are we? CMS. Yes, yes, YES.”
Jack rose to his feet. The other cheerleaders edged to the front of their deckchairs.
Cambridge Middle School won 27-23. Parents leapt in the air, players hugged and the cheerleaders stood and shyly shuffled forward.
Jack held open his sign. “Remember this,” he said.
The netballers were giddy. Their cheerleaders had spurred them on. They had felt the excitement and energy from the sideline.
“We had someone to work for,” team captain Mandi Portegys, 13, said. “It made us feel like what we did was good.”
The cheerleaders clutched their pom poms and pulled their jackets tight. The sky was growing dark, their thoughts were with their friend Pat and they had a long trip home ahead. As they turned to leave, a sing-song teenage chorus echoed around court 8: “Thank you for coming”.