Saddleback Cheer coach talks about the highlights of her 25-year career

Headshot of Denise Harris while on the LA Rams. Photo taken by Rams staff member

Denise Harris has been on the coaching staff at Saddleback College since 1999, and throughout the years, she has continued to adapt daily to cheerleading alongside her athletes. Harris cheered at Saddleback in 1985 and 1986, so being able to coach athletes in her position is a full-circle moment for her. 

“Being on staff here is like being home,” Harris says. “I am still best friends with the girls I cheered with and the team we cheered for.”

Harris cheered at Saddleback during their run to the 1985 national championship, cementing a memorable year for herself and Saddleback. The bond between a college cheerleader and football team is always powerful, and because of this, she has long-lasting memories that will never be forgotten. 

One thing that has stayed consistent for Harris throughout her time as a coach is an atmosphere. 

“Our athletic staff is amazing, and the administration are our biggest fans,” she says. 

Having a good staff on your side elevates the atmosphere, especially with the collaborative efforts of football and cheerleading. If there is no good rhythm between coaches, there might not be as much chemistry between the athletes and the coaches. 

Because of the positive experiences she had with staff and coaches, it makes her chemistry with them better. 

Not only does Harris coach at Saddleback, but she is also the head coach of varsity cheer at Trabuco Hills High School. She has been coaching at Trabuco Hills longer than Saddleback, with students following her from high school to college. 

“I love when my seniors from Trabuco follow me to Saddleback and see a different side of me,” she says. “Sports are more mature at the collegiate level.”

Harris says she feels she can treat her college athletes more like adults because they are adults. There is a lot more respect for the athletes the older they are. 

She says that following students from their freshman to senior year as high schoolers and then again as adults is an incredible experience. She grows close to these athletes; to her, they are much more than students. 

She makes personal sacrifices, such as spending long days between both schools, but they are worth it because it is rewarding to watch the athletes grow up. 

Her passion and wisdom from coaching partially stem from her time cheerleading for the Los Angeles Rams.

Harris spent two seasons with the Rams, and she knows this experience has made her a better cheerleader and coach.

“Cheering in the NFL took my experience to a whole new level,” she says. “We cheered for 65,000 fans at every home game, so we were trained that there was always a set of eyes on you.”

Cheering in front of such a large crowd made her realize how important having a good appearance was. 

She says that you are not able to let your guard down because someone will see. Even something so small, such as letting your smile fade, or your performance fades, could affect your reputation as a professional cheerleader. She loved what she did, though, so it was really rare that something like that would happen. 

A big part of being on the Rams cheerleading team was doing philanthropic work. She made sure to bring this with her when she was hired at Trabuco Hills in 1989. 

Harris always makes sure to instill the same mentality into her athletes at the high school and college levels. She wants to ensure her athletes are on the team for the right reasons—to cheer for a game. 

Trabuco Hills cheerleaders always have many opportunities to serve their community in many ways. Some examples of the squad’s work are clothing drives, wreath sales, making homemade treats for firefighters and volunteering alongside veterans. 

Harris says her favorite memory of high school and college was when both teams won the unity award at the college and high school levels.

 The Unity Award is given out at cheerleading camps to teams that are inclusive and engage with other teams at the same camp. Only one team per camp gets this award. 

“It speaks more about character, camaraderie, and the way they treat others, which is more important to me than their talent,” she says. 

Harris wants to ensure that she produces fantastic athletes and also amazing people. The most rewarding part of her job is watching her athletes learn and grow as people. She thinks that if they love cheering for the game as much as she does, that is the cherry on top of her successful career.