In 1971, a group of Celina cheerleaders had an idea.
They’d been thinking about how to boost spirit for the Bobcat team.
Eventually, the group approached cheer sponsor Linda Green. She gave the "okay" with the caveat that the girls would have to do the organizing themselves. That was just fine with the cheerleaders.
And with that, Celina High School began putting together its very own drill team.
Soon after, time was of the essence in order to prepare for their first football game performance in August. Mothers sewed handmade uniforms, and two sisters on the cheerleading squad, Donna and Carol Vest (now Donna Clark and Carol Martin), worked together to come up with the group’s first routine.
“It was a pom pom routine, and the big idol of the day was Donny Osmond,” Clark said. “And we made up our first routine to Donny Osmond’s hit, ‘Go Away Little Girl.’”
By September, the drill team began taking over its own routines, and the cheerleaders went back to their regular activities.
“It was a fun start and a fun time for us, and as we see how it’s grown and changed over the years, it’s amazing,” Martin said.
It wouldn’t be until about a year later that the team’s next sponsor, Connie Layman, would suggest coming up with a name. A collection of ideas were voted on, and one winner emerged: Las Gatitas.
The name stuck.
At the time, Martin said, the idea was to provide a way for more girls to get involved in the Bobcat “support system.” Fifty years later, Celina High School’s drill team is going strong and making waves on a national level.
Then and now
Today, Las Gatitas, Spanish for “the kittens,” includes 23 Celina High School students across all four grade levels.
The season starts in July with an 8 a.m.-5 p.m. five-day boot camp, followed by two-a-days the week before school starts. During the school year, practices are at 6:15 a.m. Monday through Friday, followed by after-school Wednesday practices on the football field and Friday night games. There are also pep rallies to prepare for each week. By the time the spring rolls around, the team is preparing for competitions.
For Coach Kelli Muck, leading the team has become personal.
Muck, who has a background in studio dance, began teaching Celina Junior High’s dance team, The Bobcat Belles in 2013. She has since also become the high school drill team coach and is about to begin her third year with Las Gatitas.
She’s been working with some of the current Las Gatitas members since they were in the seventh grade.
Last year, the team made waves when it went to the Danceline USA National Drill Team and Dance Championship. Unlike UIL competitions, Las Gatitas was expected to compete against all teams regardless of size.
They ended up scoring in third place overall. In addition, they were named champions for the small team division, and won second place overall for solo performance.
The feat came after a year of dealing with COVID-19 restrictions and missed games due to the pandemic, which equated into extra time to hone their skills.
“So kind of went to the point where we were doing extremely successfully during regionals and what they consider a state contest, which is just a larger contest,” Muck said. “And so I was like “'et’s go to nationals. You’ve earned it, I think you’d do well and let’s see how we do.'”
When Muck first took the job, her goal was to open up the dance world for her students, including bringing in choreographers from outside the community. With a national ranking under their belts, Muck now has a vision for what this year can bring to the Las Gatitas members’ experience. It’s a vision that’s based on her own experiences as a dance student.
“One of the main things that I loved doing was going and experiencing the dance world in an entertainment atmosphere,” she said.
Now, she wants her students to have the same experience by taking them to Disney World for a master class experience.
“And they’ve all earned it,” she said. “The company that we do our camps with has what’s called an elite team that they have to audition for, and so far all of my girls have made that elite team, and that gives them the opportunity to go with this company, which is amazing, and do master classes and spend four days at Disney.”
The trip preparations come as the team celebrates 50 years of Las Gatitas.
With the school year approaching, the team is working to mark the milestone. That includes plans to host an event for alumni and to find pictures of previous teams to put up in their studio.
“I’m super excited about being able to kind of share the fact that this is a tradition and it’s not just something we do on a daily basis,” she said.
Overall, Muck’s main goal goes beyond dance: it’s about building strong young leaders, she said.
Parents will comment that their daughter has grown both as an individual and as a leader. Officers feed their team and then eat last. Members circle up after every practice and every game to give props and share positive thoughts.
“I love dance, but that’s what I get out of it is that I’ve seen them grow into very amazing young women,” Muck said.
Of course, as Las Gatitas looks ahead to the future, Muck is still mindful of the traditions that make the team tick.
That includes doing the much-loved hoop routine at homecoming games, having dinner together before home games on Friday nights and meeting up in the post-practice circles.
She also mentions the team’s saying:
“Keep looking up, because that’s where it all is.”
It was 50 years ago today
Fifty years after helping to create Las Gatitas, Donna Clark has stayed in Celina.
Her sons have played on the Bobcat football team, and she’ll be the first to tell you she’s a BRIC (Born and raised in Celina).
And now, the team she helped create is gearing up for its next season and is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
“I think it’s awesome,” Clark said. “It’s really neat to see how it’s grown, and, you know, it’s changed now of course to more dance as the culture has changed. It was more routines, ripples and kicks and things back then, but I think it’s great. And I know Kelli, and she is a great dance teacher, and I know her heart’s really in this, so she’s a great coach for them.”
Gale Parks, the very first captain of the team, remembers the rehearsals in the gym and the homemade uniforms. She also remembers that the team loved being a part of halftime on the field.
“It’s a great activity for the girls to be friends and be a part of the Bobcat spirit,” Parks said. “It was always fun to live in Celina and go to Celina schools and be a part of any activity you could get into. It was just fun. The spirit was there.”
Clark has a number of memories too, including a tambourine routine that the group did to “Grazing in the Grass” in the early days.
“Those were just fun times,” Clark said, “and everybody was proud to be a Bobcat back then, and still are now.”