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Jerry Bilotti, of Antioch, the first male to coach varsity cheer at Antioch High School, watches as his squad practices in the gym at Antioch High School in Antioch, Calif., on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2014. Bilotti graduated from the school in 2002 and was on the cheer squad for three years while a student there. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Bay Area News Group)

ANTIOCH -- Jerry Bilotti and his cheerleading squad are putting the spotlight on Antioch High School in a positive way. Returning to his alma mater as the school's first male cheer coach, the 2002 graduate is looking to bring the cheer program back to its former glory with hard work and discipline.

More than just revamping a program in which he participated as a junior and senior, Bilotti has his eye on the school's mascot and what it represents.

"My goal is to bring the pride back," Bilotti said. "The panther is our mascot, and it's a whole new Panther pride."

Watching an alumni game last October, Bilotti was disappointed to see how the cheer program had changed since his high school years, citing the squad's discipline, appearance and motivation, as far from the standards of his experience.

When he heard that the position of head cheer coach was available, and with several years' experience coaching Antioch youth football and afterschool cheerleading at Antioch Middle School, he applied and was selected.

Now he balances his part-time head coach position with work as an airline attendant but finds that he's spending more than 40 hours per week at the school, something that goes with his goal of making a difference.

Being a male coach has been an advantage as has Bilotti's role as the official "big brother" to his squad and in creating a different level of respect from his cheerleaders, parents and school staff.

"I've been told many times since I've started coaching at AHS that AHS needed


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a male coach to come take over and fix things," Bilotti said. "It looks like since I've been here things have really turned around.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm trapped in a teen chick flick! It can get overwhelming, but at the end of the day, I'm just their big brother!"

Winning competitions is only part of Bilotti's vision. He wants his squad to reach out into the community and shake off the old cheerleader stereotype.

Each member of the squad has a contract that includes community service hours completed through city cleanups, a planned canned food drive for Antioch High School students and a back-to-school supplies drive for nearby elementary schools.

"I think this community service is going to make them proud, and others will see the effect of what the students have done," Bilotti said. "I think it will make an impact on other students and bring attention to Antioch High School."

Panther pride received a huge boost this summer when the squad participated at a cheer camp at UC Davis. There, it learned safety material, new stunts and team-building skills, then proceeded to take first place in all the divisions for junior varsity and varsity, including the tradition award.

"I wanted to get the traditions back in line to how they were supposed to be, so that award was big to me," Bilotti said. "This was the most trophies we've ever brought home, but in my mind, that's just how it's supposed to be."

Senior Tiffany Cooper, on the squad for four years, credits Bilotti with turning things around.

"This year we had Jerry as coach, and I can honestly say it's the best year we've ever had," she said. "His spirit makes me want to cheer more than I've ever wanted to cheer in the past. To him, it's not just about cheerleading; it's about what can we do to help people and to make Antioch a better place."

Bilotti wants Panther pride to extend to the entire student body and is using the cheer squad to help make this happen.

"Even though we're cheerleaders, we're more like representatives and leaders of the school.

"The cheerleading program is much more involved with the school than ever before, and we're getting out into the student body and getting them more involved in school events," senior Darien Nisbett said. "Jerry really wants to help not only Antioch High to have a better reputation but Antioch as a whole, and we try to shine a good light on Antioch."

Bilotti and his squad of 38 females and one male are working hard, despite the school being under renovation and having neither a field nor cafeteria, and in view of the difficulties of finding funding for transportation, practice mats and the means to get to Disneyland next March for nationals.

The coach and his squad hope that reading about the new Panther pride might encourage others to get involved by donating to school programs, getting involved with a sport or afterschool program and lending their support.

"I love Antioch, and it gives me a sense of pride to be back in it. I love the high school, and I think I can really make a difference," Bilotti said. "I've been there since last March, and we've already seen a huge impact on the attitudes of the students."

TO LEARN MORE
For more information about the Antioch High School cheer program, email AHS.PantherCheer@gmail.com or go to AHSpanther cheer on Facebook.