JOLIET – Once Sunday’s awards ceremony honoring Joliet West’s competitive cheerleading team winning the IHSA large team championship the day before had ended, the biggest Tigers cheerleader of them all took a few minutes to talk about its significance.
West athletics director Steve Millsaps has gone above and beyond to promote the positives that are happening with Tigers sports. So naturally, he was thrilled about the special accomplishment that the school’s cheerleaders achieved Saturday in Bloomington.
Coach Amy DiForti’s Tigers turned in their best score of the season, a 94.7, to not only win their initial state trophy in the sport but also West’s first state championship in anything since the Joliet Township schools went back to two athletic programs.
JT last won a title in 2000 when a combined team featuring many West athletes captured the 2000 softball championship. This was the fourth state title won by a team just from the West campus and only the second that was won in a girls sport, with the other being the 1978 basketball team.
“Last year, we had a lot of teams that had some good accomplishments but just didn’t know how to win,” Millsaps said. “So we made the commitment to bring in a sports psychologist, Brian Cain, and he’s taught us a lot, including our Tiger Pride core values. What it means when you say it, and that’s why we have signs that say, ‘’Toughness, Integrity, Greatness, Energy and Responsibility’ and then Pride is personal responsibility in daily excellence. He came and talked about building a championship culture.
“I was lucky enough my first two years out of college to work at Providence under Matt Senffner and was part of two state championships right away as an assistant coach. But we have a lot of young coaches who haven’t won. We have the kids and we’ve shown that we can make strides but we just didn’t feel like we knew how to take the next step.”
While DiForti’s program has been consistently good, qualifying for state on a yearly basis from one of the top areas for the sport, they hadn’t often been in the mix for a trophy. But if one sport is going to be the first champions at a school, which applies due to the long break for Tigers athletics, the cheerleaders are ideal candidates.
“Your cheerleaders are one of the sports that they start in the fall with football and they end in a couple of weeks with basketball,” Millsaps said. “So they’re probably your main artery with being at every event and they’re committed, as you saw from the fan section and the people who really support them. Sports are competitive, so I know other coaches are really going to want to have something that Amy and her kids just had. But until you see it and a blueprint of how it’s done that’s close to you, it’s hard to achieve.
“So now other kids can talk to each other about what they do at times when there was adversity. And I have a state championship coach, and other younger coaches can talk to Amy and find out what she did in certain situations. Obviously, not every situation is going to be the same, but it’s going to be a chance for us to have more leaders. When you’re at schools that are pumping out state championships, they have coaches who have been there for awhile who teach the younger coaches. That’s what we’re hoping here with this.”
Millsaps, someone who literally wears the gold and black on his sleeve and is a regular on Twitter highlighting West’s accomplishments, plans to capitalize on this special moment.
“We’re going to celebrate this with our students and drag it out,” Millsaps said. “I was able to bring the trophy over to boosters bowling and the coaches were so supportive. We’re in this together and all of my coaches have bought into what I’m trying to do, which is create a championship mindset and they’re buying into Tiger Pride. I think that we’re doing things the right way here and people respect that and that’s why everyone is happy for us.
“One of the basic reasons that I’ve loved this job is because I was able to take over at this school when it was brand new and was able to start things from scratch. Chris Olson was a great mentor and taught me pretty much everything that I know about the logistics of this job. By not having our mascot used recently, we were able to make people be proud to be a Tiger and grasp the students that way. It’s taken some time, but in terms of the culture, the coaches and kids are buying into Tiger Pride. Kids should have pride in their high school. It’s my job to make sure that these kids have the opportunity to have a good experience.”