Julianne Foster/ Carrollton City Schools
Elizabeth Sanders has been involved in cheerleading ever since she can remember. But she also showed sheep and hogs at 4-H competitions her formative years, too. That’s why her goal once she completed high school was to further her education to become a veterinarian. But a successful cheerleading career and a powerful mentor changed all that.
This past Friday Sanders was named the Georgia Cheerleading Coaches Association 2018 Coach of the Year at the organization’s spring conference held in Athens. She was nominated anonymously by a fellow cheerleading coach.
“I was taken aback to even be nominated,” said Sanders. “I even hesitated about filling out the application. But I was encouraged by David Brooks, our principal, who said I certainly was deserving and should finish the process.”
Sanders, a 2008 graduate of Carrollton High School, is coming off the heels of her second state championship as head coach. As a cheerleading athlete, she was part of the CHS state championship team in 2004, followed by two runner-up finishes as a Trojan. She then went on to earn three national titles as a cheerleader for the girls squad at the University of West Georgia.
But despite her success as an elite athlete, Sanders was still focused on her passion for farm animals and still planned on pursuing a more pragmatic goal of becoming a veterinarian. That was until she had a taste of coaching under her mentor, Sherry Cooney, who coached Sanders her senior year in high school and who has a stellar reputation as a coach at the collegiate level. Cooney was still heading the Carrollton program when she asked Sanders to consider joining her team as a community coach.
So Sanders, intrigued by the opportunity, left her job as a vet tech to take on this challenge and in 2012 made the tough decision to turn down vet school and tack on an education major so she could test out her dream of becoming a cheerleading coach.
“My poor husband thought he was marrying a future doctor just to find out he had married a cheerleading coach instead,” Sanders quipped.
Sanders, now on the other side of the athlete-coach relationship, worked with Cooney, followed by Ryan McKinnon, and when McKinnon stepped down to become a school administrator at Carrollton Elementary School in 2015, she was offered the job.
“I remember when I was offered the position, I asked my grandfather Lee Barr what style of leader I should be,” said Sanders. “I had worked under three great coaches – Sherry Cooney, Ryan McKinnon and Nicole Nichols (her UWG coach and now state director of the Universal Cheerleaders Association), and all three had effective – but very different – styles. He told me I couldn’t copy someone else’s style – I had to develop my own.”
Ask any of the Carrollton girls who cheer for Sanders what her “style” is, and they will quickly agree it is “tough love.”
Senior Sammie Cooney, who is the daughter of Sanders’ mentor Sherry Cooney, said her coach is “a hard driver who expects perfection.
“But I’m good with the tough part, because you trust her,” said Sammie. “Even if you’re having a bad day, she teaches you to make it through. She may yell at you, but you know she loves you, too.”
Junior Hadley Green says she was insecure when she joined the team because she didn’t think she was good enough. But Sanders, recognizing her potential, pushed her through.
“She has always had faith in me,” said Hadley. “I never thought I would make it this far and almost quit. She told me ‘I believe in you and you’ve got this.’”
Another junior, Kaston Caldwell, said Sanders is “very creative and open-minded” to try unusual or never-done routine ideas, one of Sanders’ signature strengths that has helped the team capture two state titles in three years. But Kaston also noted this creativity comes with a hardness, too. “She’s a complete and total coach at practice.”
Sanders, in developing her coaching philosophy, once again heeded the sage advice of her grandfather.
“He told me there are two driving forces of a successful athlete and those are fear and love,” she said. “My driving force as a coach is love. If my kids do not do their job, I coach them hard because I love them. If my kids do a great job, I tell them because I love them. I want the best I can get out of each girl because I know she can do it.”
CHS Principal David Brooks, who hired Sanders in this role when he was athletic director, has seen Sanders grow from being a high school student-athlete, to an elite athlete in college, and now a highly respected head coach.
“Mrs. Sanders not only coaches the varsity competitive squad, she oversees the entire cheerleading program, including football, competitive, and basketball teams for Carrollton City Schools from seventh grade on,” he said. “She is a very passionate and dedicated leader who works tirelessly year round to ensure her cheerleaders remain top ambassadors for the program across all realms, from athletic to academic to character and integrity. She truly cares about her girls and does not let winning take precedent above their wellbeing. I am very proud of her.”