Birds of a feather flock together, and at Washington High School, they also cheer and shout together.
If you’ve been to any WHS sporting events so far this year, you probably don’t need to be told that there’s something up with its student section.
The Flock, as it’s called, has become a force in student pride and support. The purpose is more than just to cheer on the teams, but also to help the athletes feel supported, build morale and have fun doing it.
Led by a group of five seniors, The Flock makes a point of attending as many WHS home sporting events as possible, from the Friday night football games to cross country and swim meets to golf, softball and soccer games, even to the band festival held earlier this month.
And to encourage and attract as many WHS students as possible to these events, The Flock leaders promote them on a special Twitter account, @BJFlockNation. They tweet reminders of when and where to be, photos and some details about the event.
The leaders select a theme for each day and send that out over Twitter, as another way to get students pumped up and excited about showing their Blue Jay pride.
With more than 1,000 followers on Twitter, The Flock’s wingspan is far and wide.
“Basically, we bring the party,” Cason Suggs, Augusta, one of The Flocks’ leaders, said with a smile.
Other leaders include Jake Jinkerson, Washington; Jonathan Amlong, Labadie; Zachary Harms, Washington; and Brock Laughlin, Labadie.
“We put out the theme, say we’ll be there, and the students just follow it . . . Our job is to control the student section, keep it all together in a certain area, and to keep them enthused, and we try to cheer on the team as a unit,” said Suggs.
Another role of The Flock leaders is to organize cheers and chants.
“We have a white board that we write the chant, and hold it up so everyone can see it,” said Amlong. “We get the whole student section to do the chant.”
WHS has had an organized student section for years, but this year’s effort shows an evolution of that spirit, going beyond just pushing for student attendance at football and basketball games to every sport.
And the rest of the student body has responded, Flock leaders say. Although they have no official numbers, attendance is definitely up and more students are getting involved.
WHS Athletic Director Bill Deckelman has been impressed with the changes that The Flock leaders have made to the student section this year.
“The kids are showing up at girls golf matches, or at the band festival, or they are at a cross-country meet. To me, that’s what should happen, and you hope that it will grow,” he said.
“I think there is some really neat inroads happening there to kind of bring some groups together who aren’t necessarily together all of the time,” he added. “I hope they keep it up, and I think it’s great when kids come out to support their peers like this, because they work really hard.”
Fun, But Not Always Easy
The Flock leaders are serious about attending each and every home sporting event and bringing a cheering section of students (even if it’s small) with them, which is why they didn’t back away from the challenge of attending the WHS home swim meet held at Four Rivers Area Family YMCA. They were able to get 15 to 20 students to the meet to sit poolside and cheer on the team.
“It was so loud in there, but we had to let them know that we were there, so we had people on one side and people on the other side, and we were just shouting B-L-U-E-J-A-Y, so it was like a surround sound feel,” said Suggs. “It was not easy, but it was fun.”
Harms thinks one of the coolest things The Flock has done so far was at the football games, bringing the drum line over to the student section. That got a lot of attention and was another way to get more students involved, he said.
Oftentimes, The Flock will bring signs and props to cheer on their athletes. One thing they like to do is get pictures of the players’ faces that they can can cut out and attach to a stick, so they can hold it up while they cheer, similar to fans at college and professional basketball games, they’ll cut out a picture of a player’s face and hold it up.
“Like they’re a celebrity,” said Suggs.
Having Fun With Themes
The Flock has fun with the themes they pick. On one rainy day earlier this month the theme was Rain Gear, and students wore rain ponchos and brought umbrellas to the soccer game.
On one unseasonably cool day in September, the theme was Flannel Night; when WHS played the Pacific Indians, the theme was Cowboy Night. They’ve also had Dad Night, where students dressed up as “slightly out-of-style middle-aged men.” They’ve also had traditional themes like black out or white out, where everyone wears black or white, and Hawaiian night.
As athletes on WHS teams themselves, the Flock leaders admit it is definitely a challenge to find time for at least one of them to attend every school sporting event, especially when jobs and homework are factored in.
With events at least two or three nights a week, and often multiple games on the same day, they have to spread out and coordinate their schedules. And although they’d like to be at a game from start to finish, sometimes the best they can do is be there for part of it.
There’s an app that lists all of the events for Washington High School a week in advance, and the leaders communicate via a group chat over texting, mapping out who is going where for the next week.
They mostly only go to home games. In the beginning, they did try to go to some away games that weren’t too far, but that ended up being too much.
At this point, the leaders admit they feel pressure to have at least one of them at every home event to lead the students.
“That was our goal,” said Amlong. “Try to go to every activity at least once. Just try to be there, at least one of us. But it gets hectic. There’s definitely times I’ve sacrificed homework for going to a game.”
“It’s a lot to juggle, but you find a way,” said Suggs.
This year’s leaders of The Flock were selected for the job by the leaders of last year’s student spirit section, which had been known as The Blue Jay Sixth Man. That’s been the tradition for years: the outgoing group picks the incoming group, who are always seniors.
Initially, only Suggs, Jinkerson and Laughlin were selected, but those three worried that because of their own althetic activities, that wouldn’t be enough, especially if they wanted to try to get to all of the events, not just football and basketball. So they added Harms and Amlong.
This year’s leaders weren’t selected until August, just before school started, but they are already keeping their eyes open for who can be their replacements — enthusiastic and motivated juniors who could pick up the ball and run with it.
In addition to having fun, The Flock leaders recognize that this also has been a learning experience for them too. Amlong said he has even included examples of how The Flock has helped him develop leadership skills for essays he’s writing for college applications.
The others agreed. They’ve learned about working with different types of people, making deadlines and being organized.
“I see how deadlines are super important, because the game is the deadline, and you have to have a time to say what the theme is going to be, and come up with new ideas,” said Suggs.
“The way we organize it has become more of a business,” he added. “I feel like people saw us just as a group, but now it’s like a job, and we’re running this.”
Name Change Stirs Controversy
The Flock is a new name for the WHS student section. It had previously been known as the Blue Jay Sixth Man, referring to a basketball team, which has five players on the court, so the student crowd was like their sixth man, cheering them on.
The idea to change the name this year came up among the leaders for several reasons. They wanted something that better reflected their plan to attend all WHS sporting events, not just basketball, and they were looking for a way to shake things up, something that could have more energy to draw a bigger crowd.
So shortly after the school’s first football game, the leaders began brainstorming over a group text message, and came up with three names they liked:
The Blue Man Group, Flight Crew and The Flock (which had been suggested by Harms).
Wanting to get a pulse on how their fellow students felt about a name change, the five leaders set up a poll on Twitter. Once the voting started, they did face some particularly harsh criticism.
Along with voting, some of their Twitter followers sent replies like:
“This is the worst idea ever,” “I can’t believe you did this,” “Keep it the same!” “I knew you would do something to ruin this.”
“We got a lot of hate,” said Suggs. “One girl even said she would transfer over this.”
Initially the five leaders said they were not sure what to do about the name, but then they noticed that the majority of the negative comments coming in were from alumni. And this, they felt, was a decision for the current students to make.
“We respect the alumni and the Sixth Man, what they set up, because without them, we wouldn’t have what we have today, but we can’t base our decision on people who aren’t going to our school anymore,” said Suggs. “We have to base it on the people who are coming up. How do they feel?”
In the end, The Flock won as the new name, because it had received the most votes of the three choices.
To announce the name to the student body, the leaders created a minute-long video where they unveiled The Flock’s new logo — a hand with fingers placed in the shape of an F. Senior Ty Rinne came up with the hand signal idea and he also filmed the video.
Now it’s the gesture students make anytime they want to show their support of The Flock.
Initially, though, very few people were supportive of the changes the leaders had made. They continued to get hateful comments made over it, and there were even a couple of opinion articles (one negative, one positive) written about it in the school newspaper.
None of the teachers seemed to like the new name or the video, but the leaders say that’s because they mistakenly thought the leaders were trying to turn the spotlight on themselves.
“They thought we were tearing down what had been built. They didn’t understand we were trying to build on to it,” said Suggs.
But once The Flock leaders began putting their plan into action — attending all school sporting events and tweeting about them to encourage more students to show up — everyone seemed to get it.
The WHS cheer team was the first to come out in support of the new name and new approach. Superintendent Dr. Lori VanLeer also tweeted her support, and Athletic Director Bill Deckelman was supportive too.
And as more people started to say they were supportive and liked it, more people followed. Now everyone seems to love The Flock and what it stands for.
“Everybody has something to stand behind,” said Suggs. “And the hand signal is really important because it’s another thing that everyone can do to feel united.”
The Flock leaders don’t hold any grudges about the controversy. If anything, it pushed them to make The Flock even better, said Amlong.
“We realized we have to do this. Let’s prove them wrong,” he said.
Jinkerson said the name change and new direction even got him more excited to be involved.
“I wasn’t that pumped up to go to football games or volleyball games before, but once we got The Flock and everyone was all full of energy, it was really fun,” Jinkerson admitted.
“It’s the energy,” said Suggs.
Athletes Appreciate the Support
The feedback from the WHS athletes The Flock is cheering for has been the best part of this, said Amlong.
“When we went to girls golf, you could tell for each and every one of them, it meant the world to them. They were all so impressed,” he said.
“It was just two of us for the first one,” Suggs recalled. “One girl actually said, ‘You really showed up?’ ”
At the next girls golf game around 15 students were part of The Flock, and Jinkerson remembers one of the other school’s golfers asking, “Is girls golf really big at your school or something?”
“No,” he said. “We just have the best student section.”
“And that really shows the impact that we do have,” said Amlong. “Just being there, it means so much to them.”
At some of the sporting events held after school or during work hours, the students who are competing may not even have their parents or any family members there, so it’s nice to have The Flock cheering them on.
“Sometimes we outnumber the parents,” Suggs remarked.
What About Next Year?
The Flock leaders are hopeful that what they started this year will be continued with next year’s senior leaders, but they also understand that it will be out of their hands.
“Even if The Flock only lasts for a small time, just this year, we had our moment, and we embraced this moment. You can’t say that we didn’t change the name and the culture of the student section,” said Suggs.