By Amanda Thames
The Daily News – Jacksonville, NC
January 24, 2015
Two Jacksonville natives will be among the many cheering for the Carolina Panthers this weekend — the difference is they’ll be on the field.
Friends since elementary school, Aliscia Taplin and Annalise Coleman are both TopCats cheerleaders.
The two were both dancers and cheerleaders from a young age, and the first time the two girls remember spending time together was at a friend’s house where their families were watching a Panthers game.
Their families still watch the games, but now they’re in the stands and pay more attention to the cheerleaders than the football team.
Both girls are enjoying their first year as TopCats during one of the Panthers’ best seasons in the team’s history. The football players are hosting the NFC Championship game against the Arizona Cardinals today, and the TopCats will perform during halftime.
Annalise’s mother Vanessa Coleman said she asked about Sunday’s game in hopes of learning more about a possible Panthers Super Bowl game, but her daugher wouldn’t talk.
“They don’t want to jinx it,” Vanessa said, laughing. “They just want to get out there and win.”
Vanessa will be wearing her lucky Panthers earrings and socks at today’s game.
Out of the 28 on the squad, Annalise and Aliscia share Jacksonville roots and are in the same group of six on the sidelines that cheer together every game.
Aliscia graduated from Northside High School in 2010 where she was captain of the cheerleading squad. She started cheering at the age of 5, according to her mother Valerie Taplin, and her mom immediately saw that cheering would be a part of her future.
“Her hands were straight. She stood out from the other girls,” Valerie said. “That’s when I knew.”
Aliscia was known as a “silent leader,” Valerie said. “Others looked to her as an example because she was a good cheerleader.”
Vanessa said Annalise also showed early talent.
“Her preschool teacher rated her ‘Gifted in Rhythm’ at 4 years old,” she said.
Annalise has a long history of dancing, including ballet, pointe, jazz and modern dance. Vanessa Coleman has more than 170 of her daughter’s trophies in her home. Dancing is her passion, Vanessa said, and she’d wanted to be a TopCat for years.
“We went to a Panthers game when Annalise was 17. She watched the cheerleaders and she said, ‘Mom, I’m going to do this,’” Vanessa said.
It wasn’t a straight shot to the Panthers’ field for either girl, though.
Aliscia originally planned to join the U.S. Air Force. She was set to leave on a Tuesday but the Sunday before, she changed her mind. Aliscia told her mother she wanted to be a TopCat. Valerie said some people take rejection and settle for another, easier-to-achieve goal, but not her daughter.
“It really inspires me because she believed in her dream even when things weren’t going her way,” Valerie said.
Aliscia told Annalise she was trying out for the squad again and shared tips with her friend about the auditioning process. Annalise was teaching at a dance studio and double majoring in public health education and dance at UNC-Greensboro, and decided to join Aliscia and try out for the 2015 squad.
Richelle Williams, the TopCats manager and choreographer, said she’s had a great season with Aliscia and Annalise on the squad.
“When you speak with them, when you watch them perform, it’s hard to say to yourself, ‘They’re rookies,’ because the learning curve was not that big for them,” Williams said.
Now both girls practice three hours once per week and another three hours the day before each game, getting ready to pump up the crowd at the Panthers’ games.
“They’re quiet, they come in and learn and they get the job done,” Williams said. “I appreciate that.”
To prepare for games, Aliscia focuses on her plate. At the beginning of the season, Aliscia researched the best foods for energy and what foods would keep her body in the best shape. She also said prayer has been the most consistent thing she’s done throughout the season.
“The reason I’m dancing is because of God,” Aliscia said, adding that it was a spiritual feeling to be out on the field.
Quiet by nature, Aliscia said she shows more personality when she’s cheering for thousands than she shows in one-on-one conversations.
“When I’m out in front of the crowd and dancing it’s a certain type of freedom,” Aliscia said. “It’s the rush and the excitement of it.”
The cheerleaders sign contracts for the season, and Vanessa said the contracts state they are not allowed to mingle with the football players. Annalise has had a couple of close-up encounters, though.
During one play, Luke Kuechly was running straight for her and Annalise told Vanessa later, “Mom, he was so big!” Vanessa said, laughing.
The girls do appearances and sign autographs as part of the squad, representing the Panthers organization. Aliscia said her favorite event was celebrating with fans as the 50-foot Christmas tree was lit up outside the Panthers stadium. It was a family event, and Aliscia is all about family. Her mother is one of her biggest supporters.
“I’m not really a football fan,” Valerie said, laughing, “but this year I would definitely call myself a Panthers fan. It’s all about those cheerleaders.”
Each year, veteran cheerleader or newcomer, the girls have to re-tryout for the TopCats squad. Aliscia said she’ll be there and hopes to be back on the field for the 2016 season.
“I just want to dance for as long as my body will let me,” Aliscia said.
For any local dancers and cheerleaders interested in trying out for the TopCats, Williams said to attend the TopCats Audition Clinic. The clinic gives an inside look at what it takes to be a TopCat and helps girls choose whether it’s a good fit for them.
The clinic will be from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on March 5 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. The cost is $185 and open to girls age 21 and older.