When Bishop Denis J. O'Connell High School's Athletic Director Darrell Snyder hired a cheerleading coach two years ago, the squad had "no respect from the school and no identity. They were going no place," Snyder said.

That was May 1983. Last December the varsity squad finished 14th out of 90 squads in their division at the National Cheerleading Association Competition in Dallas.

The 18-member O'Connell Knights unit was the largest of the 250 squads that came from all over the U.S. to compete.

"We didn't expect to win, but this is the first year we felt we really had a chance . . . [in] a major competition," said senior cocaptain Vivenne Suguitan.

"I was surprised that they finished that high," said Head Coach Kathy Gemmell. "I didn't work them that hard, but they're good learners."

The team spent several hours a day three or four times a week and gave up whole weekends to practice. On their own, team members did exercising and weight training.

Many of the squads began practicing [their routines] in September, said Gemmell. "We didn't start working on our routine until late November, after football season ended."

All of this practice had to fit in around the squad's first priority, school work, and cheering for the school teams -- boys and girls soccer, volleyball, football, wrestling and boys and girls basketball. But competing is also important, Gemmell believes, because "it establishes the fact that they are a team in their own right. It gives them a sense of pride in themselves . . . . Each member has her job to do to make the whole team succeed."

Gemmell laments the fact that cheerleading in this area is not regarded as a sport.

"Competitive cheerleading makes cheerleading a sport because the girls have to be physically well-conditioned. There's a lot more gymnastics and stunting, and a real need for weight training," said Gemmell. "Have you ever held 200 pounds on your shoulders?" she asks, referring to stunts in which they build a pyramid.

This year's squad began working together last summer at Pine Forest Cheerleading Camp in Pennsylvania where it won both the Spirit Award (a vote by all the squads for the most congenial and best squad) and the Award of Excellence, which qualified the girls to compete in the national competition in Dallas.

After that, going to Dallas was a matter of school and parental approval. "There was never any question about what the girls wanted," said Gemmell.

"When we knew we had a chance to go to Dallas, we started planning our fund-raisers," said senior cocaptain Ann Larsen. The team needed $7,000 and raised $4,000. The rest came from donations from businesses, the athletic boosters' club and from team members.

For almost three months, the group sponsored a variety of fund-raisers -- from selling doughnuts to running clinics for young cheerleaders. Gemmell said the group would not have been successful without the support of area businesses.

Less than two weeks after their return from Dallas, the Knights won first place at the United States Naval Academy Annual Invitational Cheerleading Competition in Annapolis where they received perfect scores from three of the six judges.

Athletic director Snyder acknowledges the squad's turnaround. "Everybody recognizes . . . . their talent," he said. "A few people told me at the Arlington County Tip-off Tournament last December that they came back the second night to see our cheerleaders . . . not the basketball teams."