Headed to Hershey

LEWISTOWN – On June 14, a group of local cheerleaders will leave their high school football fields behind to perform at an interstate game at Hersheypark Stadium.

A total of six seniors from Greenwood, Mifflin County, and Juniata high schools will represent the Juniata Valley at the Big 33 game.

The game is the last day of a week-long event that encompasses more than just cheering. Coaches nominate seniors who they feel have the drive and commitment to cheer at the game with other cheerleader from throughout Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Cheerleaders traveling to Hershey to represent the Juniata Valley include Talexa Langham, Whitney Swenson and Haley Knepp representing Mifflin County High School; Jackie Bollinger representing Greenwood High School; and Rachael Fowler and Ellen Long representing Juniata High School. All six girls will be cheering on the sideline of the Maryland team.

Greenwood Competitive Spirit Coach, Chelsea Nastasi, said Bollinger came to her with the desire to try out for the team.

“Her mother cheered at the Big 33 game, but I wasn’t going to push her into trying out,” Nastasi said. “She came to me and said she wanted to try out. I am proud of her because of all the hard work she has put in.”

Bollinger said cheerleading is one of her passions, one that she has had ever since she was a little girl, and following in her mother’s footsteps just seemed right.

“As I grew up, I knew I always wanted to be one of those seniors that cheered in the Big 33,” Bollinger said. “This game is so much more exciting because I get to make new friends, learn new cheers and follow in my mothers footsteps while on television expressing my passion that I have for cheerleading.”

Mifflin County High School Coach Collette Bender said one of the best parts of the week is the Big 33 Buddy program, which partners a special needs child with a Big 33 athlete.

“This is a great way for them to not only represent the school, but it also shows their commitment to the sport and the positive work they do in the community,” Bender said.

Cheer Coach at Juniata High School, Angela Clark, said the Buddy program is what makes the event as special as it is.

“I have been involved for many years, between having girls there and being the Buddy coach for the Pennsylvania side,” Clark said. “For many years I have heard about how helpful I am to the girls in my care throughout the week, but really it makes me feel special when I see the pride on the faces of the parents. This event is something I look forward to all year.”

Clark said the girls will cheer with their buddies during the half-time show and during the fourth quarter of the game. When nominating Fowler and Long, Clark said she looked for overall involvement and leadership on the team.

“Both of these girls are involved in several of the cheer squads throughout the year,” Clark said. “I am very proud of them for their commitment to the team and community involvement.”

Langham, Swenson and Knepp said spending time with their buddies is something they are looking forward to most about the experience of the game.

“I am looking forward to spending some personal time with my buddy throughout the week,” Knepp said. “I can’t wait to make them feel like part of a team.”

Swenson and Langham agreed saying this is a wonderful opportunity to give back to the community and they feel honored by the chance to represent MCHS.

“I am honored that I have been chosen to not only cheer, but also to represent my school in a way that shows both community spirit outreach,” Swenson said.

Bollinger has been involved in the program with Greenwood since her freshman year, and Nastasi said the past four years have seen a change in cheerleading at the school.

“As the team grew over the past four years, so did Jackie’s determination,” Nastasi said. “I think this also shows a change in cheerleading as a whole, not just at one individual school. Highlighting community outreach is a large part of the event and is usually what the girls look forward to most.”

Both Nastasi and Bender said this game tends to be the last big event for a high school cheerleader, and helps when trying out for a college team. They also said they believe this game is an experience that will change the lives of all who are cheering and playing at the game.

“I think this will change their lives because of the overall experience,” Bender said. “Not everyone gets to make a difference in the lives of a special needs child like this. It is heartwarming and I look forward to seeing them perform and to make friends with a buddy.”

The girls will take part in a week-long training camp, which starts today, where they will learn the routines which will be performed during the game. Clark said she believes the Juniata Valley will also be represented well behind the scenes, with three other Juniata High School students attending the game to help as Cheer Buddy Volunteers during the week.

The 2014 Big 33 Football Classic game will kickoff at 7:06 p.m. Saturday, at Hersheypark Stadium.