‘I Can Do Anything I Set My Mind To’ : Breaking Barriers as Standout Individuals

Through joining classically gender-specific teams, three YVHS students push back against confining stereotypes.

Sophomore Vincenzo Ruggiero and seniors Holly Gessler and Julian Calderon. Photo by Sarah Rodriguez.

A great roar from the bleachers floods the field as the Yucca Valley High School marching band greets the varsity football team. The Trojans are home to host the Desert Mirage Rams, and to the sounding of drums, flutes, marimbas, and more, the heavy steps of all forty-two football players press the grass as they take the field. A few of these steps are taken by someone you might not expect.

Senior Holly Gessler. Photo by Jeff Sherman.

Senior Holly Gessler entered a realm she had never encountered before as she began her final year of high school and made the decision to switch from cheer to football. “I was very nervous…being the only girl out there,” she recalled.

Despite being surrounded by experienced players, Holly refused to give in to doubt: “People were very shocked and told me not to [join], but it never influenced my decision to stay. Getting accepted by a team of guys kind of just boosts [my confidence].”

Before kickoff, Holly participates in pre-game drills with the rest of the squad. “The team as a whole treats me a lot differently now than they did before. Before, they didn’t really want a girl on the team, and now they are very accepting.” Watching the interactions between Holly and her teammates throughout the game proves no doubt she ties in nicely with the rest of them.

“I just learned that a lot of eyes are on me all the time [and] I learned that I can do anything I set my mind to.” — Holly on motivation
Holly holds her helmet high along with the rest of the team. Photo by Sarah Rodriguez.

Near the home sideline, cheerleaders pour spirit into the many students and parents gathered to support our players. Screams of “We are YV!” travel from the east to west sides of stadium, bouncing off of the bodies of all of Yucca High’s working staff and excited audience. Electricity and thrill spirals through the air as Yucca High prepares for another football success.

Sophomore Vincenzo Ruggiero. Photo by Maxine Bottorff.

Standing broad and tall next to his teammates, sophomore Vincenzo Ruggiero is “the only male cheerleader — and also arguably the loudest,” member of Yucca Valley High School Varsity Cheer. Being the only boy on a team of twenty-two, Vincenzo tells us his older sister and Yucca Valley High School and cheer alumni, Caitlyn Ruggiero, inspired him to join the cheer team. “I joined the team last year as a freshman. As [it was] her final year at high school, I thought it would be a great opportunity for us to do something together before she left.”

Although nervous to try out for varsity cheer, Vincenzo received support and encouragement from those around him. “A lot of my friends were very, very supportive of me and my decision to join the team. They were happy that I was doing something that I personally love.”

Vincenzo (right) welcomes the marching band to the field alongside teammates. Photo courtesy Michael Thomas.

With any team made of individuals, ups and downs are bound to occur. Vincenzo explains to us how determination and valuing one another must come into play during difficult times. Working with a variety of personalities has taught him a lot about teamwork, he says, as well as “taking more responsibility for my actions.” Through the fear he has overcome, and the time and effort YV Cheer Team requires, Vincenzo is a prime example of how being different is no obstacle within a team that truly cares for all members.

Vincenzo cheers on the YV Football team. Photo by Sarah Rodriguez.
“We often come together in many ways, both negative and positive. That’s how a normal family functions. Sometimes you’re going to fight, sometimes you will argue, but you just have to work through it.” — Vincenzo on teamwork

As the game goes quiet and Trojan football exits the field to discuss their second-half game plan, the nine members of the YVHS Color Guard assemble into their starting positions at center-field, flags and rifles in line at their feet. Nerves buzz from head to toe and flutter through every inch of the performers’ bodies as the marching band begins to excite the field with a flawless sound. Color Guard, including senior Julian Calderon, brings life to each note through body movements, tossed sabers, and spinning flags, creating an overwhelming umbrella of intensity over the entire field.

Senior Julian Calderon waits in line with the girls of Color Guard. Photo courtesy Michael Thomas.
Senior Julian Calderon. Photo by Maxine Bottorff.

Having been a member of Winter Guard last year, Julian joined the YV Color Guard this fall. “I heard there’s never been a guy who has stayed on the team very long.” Pushing through the nerves, Julian tells us he overcame “due to the extreme amount of excitement I had for the activity and the constant reassurance [I got] from the team.”

Though limited to different routines at times due to his gender, Julian explains how rewarding being unique in a such a group can be. Recognition as a team is thrilling on its own, yet Julian admires the attention from his audience. “People in the crowd will always acknowledge you [and] look at you for almost the entire performance, wondering what you’re going to do.”

“Gender doesn’t matter when it comes to being on a team. What matters is the time, passion, and dedication you put into it.” — Julian on passion
Coach Tiara Gorge speaks to the team. Photo courtesy Michael Thomas.

Julian credits his fellow performers and Coach Tiara George with creating a family dynamic within the team: “This team always tries to create a happy, welcoming environment [within which] no one should be afraid to be themselves,” and they always “acknowledge each other’s accomplishments and never put each other down for the things they are not able to do.”

With marching band, color guard, and cheer concluding their halftime performances, the second half begins. Holly and the rest of varsity football return to the field. Vincenzo joins his squad to face the students, family, and community members that make up the crowd. Julian huddles near his coach and fellow color guard performers as they discuss a job well done.

The football team wins 38–22, but on a campus that celebrates student talent in all its diversity, everybody wins.

Rachael Kee is active in multiple extracurricular clubs on campus, a member of ASB, and a founding member of Journalism Club. She will apply to Humboldt State University this fall.