By Matthew Yoder
Spend any amount of time with TJ Smith and you will discover a man driven to succeed, consumed with passion, and eager to include everyone harmoniously.
Smith is the head cheerleading coach at Arcadia High School. His team was just crowned 2019 region 2A champions for the first time in school history. They placed eight cheerleaders on the all-region team and Smith, himself, was named coach of the year. It didn’t happen overnight. It’s been a long journey for Smith, and one that’s culminated to this point only by hard work.
A native of Bloxom, Smith started cheering for the Firebirds as a freshman in 2001. He was prompted by his cousin, who was a senior on the team, to come out and give it a try. Despite his unfamiliarity with the sport, he succumbed to her wishes and the rest is history.
“I went in and started liking it, so once you start to enjoy something you start putting more into it,” said Smith. “You start wanting to learn more, do more, and eventually I fell in love with it so this is what I’m going to do, so I’ve got to master it.”
He cheered all four years of high school and was once again asked to support the team, this time in the role of coach. At the age of 17, he assisted coach Melissa Mathews but didn’t receive official coach status until he turned 18. He aided a successful program that secured numerous district titles during Mathews’ tenure, and when she had a baby two years ago, Smith assumed full head coach duties, allowing for all his visions to take shape.
“Once I started coaching now everything that I’ve always wanted to do I can because I’m in charge,” said Smith. He talked of inspiration often coming from another realm. “I have dreams most of the time and then I try to figure out a way to make the dream work for my team and then we put it on paper,” Smith said.
Stephanie Williams, region 2A cheerleader of the year as a freshman, sat with her teammates in the cosmetology room at Arcadia, huddled admiringly around their coach, speaking to his methods. “He pushes us past our limit,” Williams said.
Another member of the team, Sahraiya Brown, agreed but also spoke to Smiths’ intuition for his athletes.
“It’s only because he knows our capabilities,” said Brown.
Smith, by all accounts, has a seasoned, accomplished mind when it comes to performances and what judges look for, but this year he also made a concerted effort to turn over some control to his team. The dance portion of the routine was largely their brainchild.
“I was shocked when I saw it. I thought that really looks fun and you all did a good job with that one,” said Smith.
At the end of the day, however, Smith has the pedigree to comprehend what the judges seek out of a performance, which often puts a team in the best position to wow and gather trophies. Of the judges, Smith offered what he has learned.
“You know what they’re looking for but at the same time you don’t know how to perform it in the way they want it done,” said Smith. At districts this year, Arcadia fell short of judges’ expectations and came in second behind Nandua.
Smith felt like a lot of people were expecting him to be bitter following the decision. He didn’t see it that way and decided to take a different direction in his approach for regionals.
“The judges chose and the best team won, we just gotta work harder next time,” Smith said.
He believed his team would be treading on shaky ground if they didn’t employ this type of approach, and Smith seems just the man to find positives in a negative. “You just have to keep it positive. I think if everyone looked at it like that things would be so much better on the Shore,” said Smith.
“This little place called the Eastern Shore, if we’re at each others’ throats here we’re never gonna get anywhere, we gotta join together,” said Smith.
Smith is quite adept at joining people together. His team is very much a coed effort and has been for some time. He recalls his first days coaching back in 2005, when he took on the role of recruiting people for the team. His godbrother was a member of the football team, and Smith urged him to find a few athletes to add strength to his team. They were unsure but initially came out to get closer to the girls. They eventually became attracted to the skill and physicality involved, and in the first year seven players joined the team. Those seven trendsetters set a wave in motion, and since then Smith has had no fewer than five boys on the team at one time.
“They look at it as a girly sport until they get in and realize how hard it is and that it’s actually fun,” said Smith.
Smith wears many hats and even serves as a guidance counselor in many respects, speaking to the possibility for these boys to pursue scholarships in cheering at the collegiate level.
“Half of these kids need to understand that it’s easier for a male to get a scholarship in cheering than it is in football, basketball, or any of them,” Smith said.
He elaborated on the point.
“Think about how many good football, basketball, and baseball players there are and there are not a lot of good male cheerleaders,” said Smith.
However, one such cheerleader, Robbie Sterling, bucks the trend. He made first team all-region, and Smith sees potential in him at the next level.
“He’s really interested in pursuing it after high school and I really think he has what it takes to do it. He is strong, he’s enthusiastic, and he likes to perfect what he’s doing,” said Smith.
For Sterling and the other members of the football team competing for Smith, cheerleading in 2019 represented not only the opportunity to avenge losses to Nandua on the field but also a loss on the mat at districts. Nandua was joined by juggernaut King William as hurdles to regional glory for Arcadia.
King William seems as close to a dynasty in region 2A cheering as you can get. They have spent the better part of 15 years dominating the stage. Smith reveres their approach and that of their coaching staff, which made Arcadia’s victory all the more sweet. “I just can’t even wrap my mind around it, I’m still in shock because we’ve been trying to beat King William for so long,” said Smith.
“To finally do it seems surreal.”
It seems as though in some respects Smith has been tutored by their successes. “Miss Jennifer at King William has been around ever since I was in school and King William has been winning all that time, I’ve always looked up to her and she knows we always support her team,” said Smith.
This year King William were the ones congratulating.
“She texted me the other night and said I’ve watched you over all the years and you really deserve this, you worked really hard for this and I’m proud of you,” translated Smith.
The win at regionals garnered Smith coach of the year honors, and eight of his athletes, Williams, Sterling, Rinasha Reid, Kenniah Cook, Joslin Shaffer, Tyre Ballard, Keith Grinnage, and Alyssa Wessels all earned spots on the all-region team.
Not one to exclude, Smith wanted to point out Grayson Cooper, Joshua Mills, Madison Johnson, Taylor Thornes, and Mackenzie Annis as worthy additions to the all-region team from Nandua.
In addition to all the personal accolades, the win at regionals put Arcadia back in the state competition, being held this Saturday at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
The competition will be fierce but Smith will do his best to keep his squad loose going in.
“I’m not gonna change much because I don’t want to stress them out, I think they’ll be OK,” Smith said.
“The judges said it was a great routine, we just need to clean up and our mission is to perfect what we already have,” said Smith.
Arcadia’s win at regionals has put other teams around the state on notice, particularly the other seven squads they will compete against. Smith had to make his Facebook page private as people looked to it for opposition research.
“It means they heard,” said Smith.
He does not appear a man intimidated by the challenge or deterred by hard work. His love for coaching is undeniable.
“People don’t understand if you don’t love coaching you wouldn’t do it because it boils down to about ten cents an hour,” said Smith. “When you think about how long you’re actually at this school per day and how many events you have to go to and how much time outside of here you spend preparing, it’s not about the money because if it is you wouldn’t do it,” Smith said.
He credits former Arcadia principal, Rose Taylor, as a guiding figure in his maturity and ascension.
“I must give props to Miss Taylor, she definitely pushed me, she was supportive, don’t get it twisted. Principal O’Shea is a supporter as well, but Miss Taylor really pushed me,” Smith said.
A self-admitted knucklehead in high school, Smith believes Taylor saw through him and challenged him.
“I had a lot of mouth, didn’t let anybody get anything past me. I always had something to say and she said I don’t know about you coaching, so my whole career has been about making her see that I am capable of this,” said Smith.
Now Smith stands at the threshold of something truly special for the community. His team gathers round and listens to every word he says, a group he describes as classy and humble. They are a group that’s easy to cheer for and seems to feed off the crowds’ excitement and more importantly that of their passionate coach.
Stephanie Williams, surprised and humbled by her own personal achievements, sums up simply the man she takes direction from.
“You can definitely tell he’s dedicated,” said Williams. He, and they, are a team worth following.