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Her cheer teammates left before the championship. So she competed solo.

Katrina Kohel, a senior at Morrill High School in Nebraska, competed solo at the state cheer championships on Feb. 17 after her teammates left the program. (Video: Rhonda Kohel)
6 min

Two weeks before the Nebraska State Cheer & Dance Championships, Katrina Kohel found out she was the only person left on her squad.

The Morrill High School senior’s three teammates had suddenly left the program, her coach, April Ott, told her. As they talked over breakfast in early February, Ott gave Kohel a couple of options.

They’d already booked hotel rooms for the competition in Grand Island, Neb., so they could still go and watch the other teams — a final trip to end Kohel’s last cheer season. Or they could skip the championship entirely.

“I want to go to state, but I’m not going to watch,” Kohel, 17, told her coach. “I want to go and still compete.”

And she did. On Feb. 17, Kohel performed a modified, three-minute routine at the championship against other squads with around 10 cheerleaders. She placed eighth out of 12 teams — but won the hearts of the crowd that cheered her on from the second she ran out onto the floor alone.

“At that moment, it was like we became Team Nebraska,” Ott said. “Nobody was individual anymore.”

In the weeks since, videos of Kohel’s routine have been circulated on social media and by local news outlets, with viewers praising her confidence to perform alone.

“I just wanted to finish what I started,” Kohel said. “And just end my career with a bang, no matter what was going to happen.”

She’d wanted to be a cheerleader from a young age. Growing up in North Platte, Neb., Kohel’s parents took her to football games at Hershey High School, where she was mesmerized watching the cheerleaders in their black, white and blue uniforms.

Years later, when she started attending Morrill High, Kohel threw herself into multiple sports, joining its track, basketball and volleyball programs within her first two years. Although cheer was a year-long sport and she’d have to juggle it with her other seasons, it was still her dream, so she joined the Morrill team — at the same time Ott began coaching the small-town school’s squad.

For years, Kohel heard Ott’s signature speeches and sayings.

Be proud of who you are, be proud of your school, Ott would tell the cheerleaders during practice. Show your spirit.

That was Kohel’s goal when she told Ott on Feb. 2 that she still wanted to compete, even if she was all alone — to give herself and her coach one last chance to show their spirit.

“I think that’s my favorite thing, is just that we started this journey together,” Kohel said.

The next day, the duo met again to change the team’s original routine.

They took out the portions of the choreography that Kohel wouldn’t be able to do solo. Ott revamped the cheer signs, using her Cricut stencil maker and Command strips so that Kohel could flip them easily on her own.

Kohel competed in the championship’s “Game Day” category, which judges cheerleaders on “their ability to lead the crowd, proper game day skill incorporations/performance, motion/dance and overall routine,” according to the competition’s handbook. To meet the criteria, Kohel would have to do a band chant, then respond to a football game situation given by the announcer with an offense or defense cheer before leading the crowd in a floor cheer and ending on the school fight song.

Once the changes to the routine were finished, Ott and Kohel practiced as much as they could leading up to the competition, meeting at the high school gym in the mornings before the first bell rang.

Kohel was excited. She felt ready to compete.

That changed when she arrived in Grand Island, with the realization that she would be by herself in front of the crowd finally hitting her. She was second in line to perform.

When Kohel ran onto the floor, pumping her blue and white pompoms and wearing her uniform with “LIONS” emblazoned in gold, the crowd immediately started cheering for her.

“I got goose bumps just listening to it,” said Ott, who was watching from the music table set up beside the floor.

As Kohel’s routine started, audience members picked up the band chant, shouting “Go! Fight!” and “blue” or “white,” depending on which pompom she held out.

The announcer then gave her a prompt for a defense cheer.

“Defense, attack!” Kohel yelled. “Pressure, turn it up!”

After the first time she did the defense cheer, the audience joined her. They did the same for the floor cheer, shouting “Blue and gold! MHS!” As Kohel performed with Morrill’s fight song, the audience clapped and cheered through her final “Let’s go, lions!”

But Kohel doesn’t remember any of it. Her mind went blank, she said, and she turned to muscle memory to get through the routine.

Afterward, when she made it off the floor to hug Ott, the excitement she’d had practicing for the championship came rushing back. Kohel’s grandparents, who watched her compete, gave her a rose — yellow to match the gold on her Morrill uniform.

“I was extremely proud of myself and everything,” Kohel said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better coach or a better season, even if I was there by myself. It still turned out amazing.”

Ott said watching Kohel perform was “the most beautiful thing.”

“You just saw that all the teachings and the lessons just came out,” she said.

That night, Kohel watched a video of her routine that her grandmother took nearly 20 times. It was “amazing” she said, to hear the support through all the chants she led.

The same video has reached thousands of people since the competition.

Kohel said she hopes it inspires people to continue working hard, to know they can do what they set their mind to — the same lessons she’ll take with her as she prepares for her first track meet later this month.

“You’ll get where you want to go,” Kohel said. “And just don’t give up just because everybody else around you has.”