Don't let the pompons fool you.

There's more to this cheerleadingstuff than fluff. As the young footballers grunt and huff through their practice drills, the cheerleaders also sweat it. They, too, work on their moves.

"They throw and toss and tumble and jump and build pyramids. There's a lot of strength involved," said Margaret Smith, cheerleader coach for North County High School in Linthicum.

Smith would know allabout it, seeing as how she's entering her 30th year as a cheerleader coach. Since she started, she said, "cheerleading changed from being pretty and fluff on the sidelines to being very strenuous."

She was talking in the hallway at North County the other day as the varsity squad ran through a few drills.

Fourteen girls were moving and shouting as one: "KNIGHTS LET'S DO IT, INTERCEPT THAT BALL . . . WE'LL WIN IT, WE WANT IT ALL." Each word was punctuated with a turn or a fist in the air. They call it a "sideline," a short, punchy cheer repeated several times.

A "sideline" is not to be confused with a "cheer," which has more words and is not repeated: "NORTH COUNTY SHOW HOW IT'S DONE. LOOK OUT, WATCH OUT, SHOW HOW IT'S DONE."

The 16-member squad knows about 60 sidelines and 20 cheers, along with many dances, acrobatic moves and pyramid formations.

Through football season, basketball and soccer, the cheerleaders do their stuff on the sidelines. But don't be fooled. Beneath many of these perky exteriors beat competitive hearts. And the rivalries can be as intense as in football.

Last year, the merging of Brooklyn Park and Andover high schools to create North County High diffused one of the county's fierce cheerleading rivalries. Now, says Smith -- who used to coach at Brooklyn Park -- North County probably will face its greatest competition in Old Mill.

The North County squad is on a high these days. The group placed first among 15 schools in summer competition at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, sponsored by the National Cheerleaders Association. The organization is based in Dallas, of course.

The summer honor followed a spring triumph at the East Coast Cheerleading Championships, where the North County varsity squad placed firstin the 13-team Large Varsity Division.

During that competition atthe campus of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., three members of the North County group were chosen to represent the East Coast at the 1992 Hula Bowl in Honolulu. Now Ashley Boudris, theteam captain, Amy Luebehusen and Jennifer Emrich are busy trying to raise the money for the trip.

Luebehusen, squad co-captain, said it'll cost her $1,200 plus spending money. She's been working a summerjob.

Now in her fifth year of cheerleading, Luebehusen, a senior from Brooklyn Park, said, "It keeps me busy. I'm never bored."

Shewas leading the squad through some drills the other day in the absence of Boudris, who was with her family in Ocean City. The squad ran through a few sidelines and cheers, did some leaps, then pulled out the red, black and silver pompons and worked on forming the letters to spell "GO KNIGHTS."

"You'll have it down by your sides, and I'll say, 'Give me a G,' and you go 'boom,' she said, throwing her arms out.

Letter by letter, they spelled it out. Then they called it a day. They would be back the next day, though, and every day of the following week.

"I like the feeling when you win," said squad member Crystal Weaver, of Pumphrey, a senior who used to run school track. "I like doing cheerleading. It's a lot of work, but the reward in the end is worth it."

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