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Questions swirl at La Jolla High School after cheer coaches are dismissed

La Jolla High School cheerleaders perform in the halftime show of the Sept. 30 Homecoming football game.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

The coaches, team members and parents say they weren’t given a specific reason for the decision. The principal says the competitive cheer program is ‘unable to proceed ... at this time.’

The La Jolla High School competitive cheer team is sidelined at least until the school finds a new coach after dismissing both of the team’s coaches last week in a move that surprised many, including the coaches.

Coach Elsie Lopez, who had led the La Jolla High cheer teams since 2019 and works in the school’s office as its attendance clerk, was let go by Principal Chuck Podhorsky and Vice Principal Joe Cavaiola on Nov. 4.

Delia Lopez, Elsie’s mother and the school’s registrar, was dismissed as assistant cheer coach.

Both are staying on in their other school jobs and said they haven’t been given an indication that they will be let go from those positions.

Delia Lopez said no reason was given for their dismissal as coaches, other than that administrators were “going to take the cheer program in a different direction.”

In a Nov. 5 email to team parents, Podhorsky said the school “has decided to make a change in the leadership of the La Jolla High School cheer program, effective immediately.”

“Due to insufficient funds and staff vacancy, we are unable to proceed with our LJHS competitive cheer program at this time,” the email added. “We are hoping to let the student-athletes continue with sideline cheer for the remainder of the winter season (under different leadership) while we work to fill this vacancy.”

Podhorsky told the La Jolla Light that he cannot comment about personnel issues but added that the administrative team is “in the process of bringing on new coaches for the LJHS Sideline Cheer Club and competitive cheer team.”

“We are looking forward to filling the vacancy as soon as we identify the best applicant,” he said.

The coaches’ dismissal came after an investigation in which the Lopezes were called into repeated meetings with administrators, Elsie said. The meetings were held with each coach separately.

“We were asked uncomfortable questions,” Delia Lopez said, such as whether the coaches had taken the cheerleaders to their house or taken money from them.

Both coaches said they answered no to those questions and said they have never acted inappropriately with any of the team members.

“We don’t handle the money,” Elsie Lopez added.

She said she would like to know specifically why she was removed. “If we don’t know why we’re being let go, how can [we] know what to improve?” she said.

Tami Renteria, whose daughter Giavana is a senior on the cheer team, said she is concerned about the coaches’ dismissal and the cancellation of the competitive season, which matters for CIF recognition.

Scouts attend cheer competitions, Renteria said, which can mean college scholarships for the students.

“Our girls train all year as athletes to compete,” she said.

Questions linger about the fate of the La Jolla High School competitive cheerleading team.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Renteria, who serves as the team mom, said the cheer parents and girls also were not given a reason for the Lopezes’ dismissal other than that administrators “decided to go in a different direction.”

She said she never had problems with the coaches in the three years she has been team mom, and she disputed Podhorsky’s statement about insufficient funds.

However, she said, when the coaches and parents had a meeting in October to go over season scheduling, three or four parents began yelling at the coaches with complaints about communication and Elsie Lopez’s coaching style. Renteria didn’t see those things as problems, she said.

“We have a very structured program,” Delia Lopez said. “We encourage our cheerleaders to be students first. Elsie has a handbook that parents sign and agree to” in order for their daughters to participate that delineates rules on tardiness, communication, academic expectations and campus representation.

The handbook is based on national guidelines for cheerleader behavior and CIF guidelines for academics, Elsie Lopez said.

Renteria said it seemed to her that the October meeting led to the investigation and that she felt “only certain voices are being heard.”

Of the 18 families on the cheer squad, the school did not contact more than those who complained, Renteria said, and spoke to only a handful of the girls on the team.

Other team members’ parents, citing fear of retribution against their children, were unwilling to give their names to the Light or share the names of parents who complained.

The Lopezes “changed our girls’ lives academically and … otherwise,” Renteria said. The decision to remove them as coaches is “heartbreaking. It’s like our voices don’t matter,” she said.

Delia Lopez said that to “have your girls come hug you and cry is devastating.”

She said she and her daughter worked hard to create a culture “to love a sport and do it well.”

Elsie Lopez, who has more than 10 years’ experience coaching cheer, said she’d like to see this year’s team compete.

Giavana Renteria, a member of the team since ninth grade, would like that, too.

“Being on competitive cheer, I get to be an athlete,” she said. “I want to be part of an athletic team. Regardless of the outcome, you’re proud of all the hard work you’ve put in for months.”

She said the decision to remove the coaches “impacts me mentally, emotionally [and] physically. … Our coaches deserve so much better for all the things they’ve done.”

Giavana attends LJHS from her City Heights neighborhood; her mother works at UC San Diego in La Jolla.

Giavana said she was nervous to start at La Jolla, but “being on cheer connected the dots.”

No competitions means no potential for cheer scholarships, she said. “That’s been robbed from us.”

She would like to know what happened with the coaches. A lack of information “causes more conflict,” she said. ◆