As a near-deafening refrain of techno music rocked the 1st Mariner Arena, Kathy Brown gathered her 16 girls in the quietest corner she could find, drew them into a tight circle and voiced a theme she hoped would propel them through their 150 seconds in the spotlight.
"I don't want any attitudes," said Brown, coach of Coastal Xtreme, a Salisbury cheerleading squad in town yesterday to compete in the 18th annual Maryland State Cheer and Dance Championships. "Go out as there a team, and you'll take the title."
Decked out in white, black and gold cheerleading uniforms - with hair ribbons, eye glitter and lip gloss to match - the girls didn't seem to need the motivation. As one of 108 teams from around the state, they exuded an attitude of positivity, win or lose, as they waited to perform.
"I know we have a good chance," said Sabrina Brown, 14, a nine-year cheer veteran and daughter of the coach.
The annual extravaganza is the brainchild of Serena Andrews, a Baltimore native and founding CEO of Coastal Corporation. The Hanover-based company is one of about 120 that sponsor cheerleading competitions around the country each year.
The sport has been booming in popularity. Andrews started her company in the early 1990s, but the industry surged in 2001, she said. For five years, her business grew by about 30 percent annually, she said, before leveling off in 2006.
"It's a multibillion-dollar industry," says Andrews, who fell in love with cheerleading at age 3 and has been involved in the sport ever since. "Those of us who got started [in the business] when we did are better at fending off the competition."
Coastal annually runs 30 contests nationwide. The winners at those events - more than 300 teams - gain bids to Battle at the Capitol, Coastal's national championship in Fairfax, Va., in March.
Andrews describes herself as "the Don King of cheerleading," and the famed boxing promoter's job can hardly be more complex than hers. Yesterday's competition involved participants from multiple age groups (3 to 18 years old), six skill levels and several competitive categories, including cheer, dance, tumbling and stunts. Teams compete as recreational, all-star, high school or college units. (The "all-star" teams are based at private gyms.)
Nearly 3,000 parents and friends looked on from the stands - a number that might have been larger if President-elect Barack Obama weren't speaking at War Memorial Plaza a few blocks away.
Some routines were complex, with tightly organized groups circling in unison and knots of athletes tossing smaller teammates, or "flyers," in the air. Team members fanned across the blue mat to create spectacles of athletic choreography. A panel of 11 judges doled out a maximum of 300 points for each routine.
Four squads from one perennially strong club, Crimson Heat - a 108-member all-star team from Capitol Heights - carried out their usual spectacular routines. By midday they had bagged one title and two bids to Fairfax.
Lisa Jefferies, dressed in the Heat's black, red and gold colors, squirmed with excitement as she waited for the club's oldest squad - which includes her daughter, Bria, 14 - to perform later in the day.
She praised Heat coach and choreographer Veronica Graves for running a top-flight program that includes etiquette lessons, homework sessions and mother-daughter teas with its three grueling practices a week.
"Veronica says if they give it their all, they win," she said, laughing. "Myself, I like the trophies."
Many participants, though, spoke of gaining self-esteem, making new friends, and discovering their own athletic skills through cheerleading.
"You have to have endurance," said Jenee Greenwood, 17, of Capitol Heights, a member of Crimson Heat. "That and a lot of passion."
"I love being a flyer," said Abbie Roglitz, 9, of Coastal Xtreme. "It's fun."
Her mother, Jennifer Roglitz, said Abbie is so shy she often doesn't speak within small groups. "But she can get up and cheer in front of 5,000 people," said Roglitz, who sported a black "Abbie's Mom" T-shirt.
The girls from Coastal Xtreme had high hopes. Last year, they won this competition in their division, and they won a world title on a different circuit. As they took the stage yesterday, they looked the part.
They formed a circle, holding hands. Then, as the music rose, they fanned into three spiraling groups, each of which tossed a petite flyer skyward.
At nine feet up, Abbie did an arabesque and beamed at the crowd.
As the music faded, though, some sensed that their timing hadn't been perfect. Moments later, they learned that they placed second to an Upper Marlboro team, Maryland Cheer Explosion.
But their positive attitudes were as bright as ever.
"That team deserved it," a cheerful Sabrina Brown said. "They were great. And our mistakes? Nothing major. They were nothing we can't fix."