When we last saw the Navarro Community College cheerleading squad in Netflix, it was in the final episode of the docuserie “Cheer” (“Cheerleaders in action”). They had just won the national championships of the National Cheerleading Association (NCA) in the junior college division and celebrated in the tradition of running to the sea.
Then came the fame. The main cast, including head coach Monica Aldama, became celebrities in the cheerleading community overnight, even those who were already well known. They attended talk shows like “Ellen,” posed for portraits, and Aldama competed on “Dancing with the Stars.”
Gabi Butler, a sporadic Navarro student who returns to compete with the team and was one of the most famous cheerleaders before the series debut, said everyone was surprised by the success of the program.
“Nobody really expected the show to be that big and I think that took us all by surprise, it was like, ‘Oh wow, we thought only cheerleaders would see this.’
One of the new stars was Jerry Harris, a pudgy sports-obsessed cheerleader and member of the team known for his “practice talks” and his way of shouting to excite his teammates. His mother had died of cancer when he was a teenager, and a group of cheerleading moms had helped him get by in suburban Illinois, where he is from. Although he was a well-liked member of the team, Harris was not good enough to compete in the championship. But due to an injury to a teammate, he was called up for the competition and helped lead the team to victory.
The happy ending lasted until September 2020 when Harris was indicted on federal child pornography charges. He was also accused of soliciting sex from minors at cheerleading competitions and convincing teenagers men from sending you sexually explicit photos and videos of themselves. Harris is in prison awaiting trial. He has pleaded not guilty to all seven charges he faces.
Hardly anyone knew that cameras were still filming Navarro’s team shortly after the first season premiered. They captured his rise in notoriety, much to the annoyance of teammates who were mostly visible as supporting cast.
The second season of “Cheer”, premiered on Netflix, shows what happened next, including the abrupt halt of their activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic weeks before the championship. The cameras returned to the following school year 2020-2021 to pick up the plot.
One surprise of the second season is that the series follows not only Navarro but his main rival—the Trinity Valley Community College cheerleading squad, less than an hour away.
“Cheer” creator director Greg Whiteley said, “We were lucky that two of the greatest varsity cheer teams in cheerleading history live 30 miles (50 kilometers) apart. It was a logical thing, I think, to go and spend time in Trinity Valley just like the time we were spending in Navarro.”
Each college had a designated film crew, and Whiteley went to both. He hopes viewers will be interested in both.
“I felt like the storytelling was going to get better … that you weren’t pressured to support one over the other, but instead, when you got to Daytona, when there was going to be a trial, you felt divided.”
At that time Trinity Valley’s head coach was Vontae Johnson, a former Trinity Valley cheerleader. His assistant coach was Khris Franklin, who was once Johnson’s coach. (Since then both are co-trainers). The two are like yin and yang and this is very well portrayed with his point of view on Navarro. While Johnson doesn’t try to hide his vicious criticism of Navarro, and especially Coach Aldama, Franklin is more pragmatic. He likes Aldama and says that friendly comments are exchanged when they see each other at competitions.
Whiteley hopes viewers won’t try to search the internet for what happened when the schools squared off at Daytona.
“It’s much better to watch episode eight and nine without knowing what happened.”
Johnson says Trinity Valley was approached to film before the first season, but they weren’t interested because they feared it would be a distraction for the crew. After “Cheer” premiered on Netflix, they reconsidered it for the second season. “We thought it would be a good opportunity because of the way they portrayed the athletes in the first season, capturing the athleticism and all the things that are great about our sport.”
“As a college across the street had this opportunity, we felt like it was really good for us to be able to give our kids the same opportunity,” added Franklin.
Although there is an episode in the second season in which the accusations against Harris are addressed, viewers do not see Navarro’s team react to the news as a whole. Whiteley said that it was not a creative decision but that the COVID-19 protocols at the time did not allow them to film.
“I hate that we weren’t there to film,” Whiteley said. “We had their versions afterwards where they tell us what happened and how Monica broke the news to them and how those meetings were made and how difficult it was for these guys. But we couldn’t see it because we just couldn’t film for obvious reasons.”
In an email, Aldama added that any pain the team felt over Harris’ arrest “pales in comparison to what his victims went through, my heart goes out to them. I am proud of the team for giving it their all in training every day and doing what we needed to do physically because emotionally it was difficult”.
Aldama says that overall, viewers will see how Navarro’s team was able to stay focused in the gym despite the struggles they faced.
“We shot during that time that was extremely difficult for everyone, definitely one of the most difficult years of my career, so there are moments in the series that are raw and gritty because you’re watching it in real time. But we learn from these difficult times in life, and the series also shows the strong character and strength of our athletes. As a coach and leader, I’m not always perfect, but I think it’s important to stay positive and take every challenge and opportunity to grow.”
Johnson is apprehensive about becoming famous for the series and wants the spotlight on the team.
“I don’t want it to be about me,” Johnson said. “I want it to be about the team. I was just going to do my job no matter what.”