When cheerleader tryouts were over in March and the new mascots were announced for Lake Highlands High School, one family felt a little déjà vu. Rising senior Maribeth Punjak is one of LHHS’ newest Wildcat mascots, a role her mother, Julie Punjak James, played in 1982-83.
“My cat name will be Sammy,” says Maribeth, who will share duties with lead mascot Emily Boyd. The freshman mascot will be Chloe Willis. “I’m really looking forward to having a good time, entertaining the crowd and having fun with little kids.”
It took some convincing, but now she’s happy to have tips from her mom.
“When Maribeth was younger she didn’t believe that I was the mascot. I had to show her pics to prove it,” says Julie. “You have to use your instinct if a child is scared [of the big cat suit], but mostly children were coming up and wanting to hug me or pull my tail. I would walk in the stands and be mobbed by the kids.”
The girls will attend camp, where they will receive training with other mascots by mascot pros.
In 35 years, says Julie, much has improved.
“Otis was my Wildcat costume’s name, and Otis had wiry fur. I had to brush it to keep it de-tangled. The head was huge, and it had a strap that would go under my chin to help keep it on.”
Some things, though, remain the same.
“In colder months, the suit was nice and cozy, but in August and September, that suit was so hot. I used to say it was a great weight loss program. I could sweat off 10 pounds during a football game.”
According to the LHHS yearbook, “The Wildcat mascot was a new addition to the school this past 1980-81 school year. After a questionnaire was sent out to the student body asking their opinion on a mascot suit, the favorable response was all that was needed. The mascot made its first appearance to the student body on January 30, 1981 at the Greenville [High] basketball pep rally. The first person to wear the suit was senior Monica Bush.”
“Tommy Spillman was mascot the year before me,” adds Julie. “I was the third.”
Since the first class graduated from LHHS in 1964, that’s a long time to go sans-mascot.
“I have no idea why they waited so long,” says Julie. “I never heard anything about that.”
In Julie’s day, mascots were selected by student vote after candidates performed a routine of their creation in front of the student body in the gym – a process Julie calls nerve-wracking. Maribeth, Emily and Chloe were selected by judges. Julie performed at football and basketball games and pep rallies, as will today’s mascots, but they will also appear at the LH Junior Women’s League Run the Highlands, Exchange Club’s Oktoberfest and multiple other community events.
“Our cheerleaders were great about incorporating the mascot into routines and pep rally skits. It was still pretty new to have a mascot back then,” says Julie. “The best thing about being a mascot is representing the great community of Lake Highlands and making people of all ages smile and laugh.”
You can see the new mascots and cheerleaders perform at the upcoming Red White Game on May 20th. Pre-game festivities start at 1:30 and kickoff is at 2 at Wildcat-Ram Stadium.