Allegations of abusive behavior surface against dismissed La Jolla High School cheer coaches; they deny them

La Jolla High School cheerleaders march in the 2021 La Jolla Christmas Parade.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Details have surfaced of complaints alleging abusive treatment and retaliation by the now-dismissed coaches of the La Jolla High School cheer team.

Coach Elsie Lopez, who had led the Vikings’ 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.

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.’

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 Nov. 8 that no reason was given for their dismissal as coaches, other than that administrators were “going to take the cheer program in a different direction.”

But Jessica Uhrig, whose daughter BellaRose is a junior at LJHS and had been on the cheer team for two years, told the La Jolla Light in emails and an interview that the coaches kicked her daughter off the team in June after Uhrig complained to LJHS administrators about BellaRose being “horrifically and habitually emotionally and verbally abused by her cheer coaches Elsie Lopez and Delia Lopez.”

Three other team members and one of their parents made similar complaints regarding the coaches’ behavior.

Uhrig said Elsie Lopez benched BellaRose and deemed her “ineligible” to cheer in the weeks before BellaRose was removed from the team.

Elsie and Delia Lopez denied any harassment or abuse. Delia called the allegations “very disturbing.”

“That’s so wrong,” Elsie said.

Elsie Lopez, who said she has more than 10 years’ experience coaching cheer, said BellaRose did not make the team for this academic year after tryouts in July but said “there was no retaliation.”

She said it seemed Uhrig’s comments might themselves be retaliation for her daughter not making the team.

Elsie Lopez said she could not comment about a particular student’s eligibility but added that the school provides an eligibility list every semester and those who do not qualify based on grades are not allowed to compete but can attend practices.

She also denied Uhrig’s allegation that she discussed her daughter’s grades and other personal information with other parents.

Uhrig said she was “worried for [BellaRose’s] mental safety” after her daughter was released from the team. She added that a competitive cheer team recruited BellaRose and that she has been traveling and competing with that team.

Uhrig said it was necessary for the Lopezes to leave their coaching positions, saying “they were detrimental to these girls’ safety and well-being.” She claimed several other girls have left the team amid mistreatment by the coaches.

She said BellaRose would love to rejoin LJHS cheer in her senior year.

Uhrig said she had been complaining to La Jolla High administrators and the San Diego Unified school District about the coaches since last year. Podhorsky began an investigation this summer.

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 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.

During the investigation, the coaches were called into repeated meetings with administrators, Elsie Lopez said. The meetings were held with each coach separately.

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

“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.

The Lopezes 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 that said she never had problems with them in the three years she has served as team mom.

Renteria said the cheer parents and girls were not given a reason for the Lopezes’ dismissal other than that administrators “decided to go in a different direction.” She also disputed Podhorsky’s statement about insufficient funds.

However, Renteria 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.

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.

It seems that “only certain voices are being heard,” Renteria said.

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.”

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.

Elsie Lopez said the cancellation of the competitive season could impact team members because cheerleaders can submit videos from competitions to showcase their skills in college scholarship applications. She 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 outside La Jolla; her mother works in La Jolla.

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

She would like to know specifics of why the coaches were dismissed. A lack of information “causes more conflict,” she said. ◆