MC cheer squad in state’s better half

HERSHEY – The arena was filled with the staccato beat of dance music, like you would expect to hear while teams are warming up for competition.

But in this one, the race to be No. 1 was well under way.

The teams were called to the floor a few minutes apart, the competition running like a machine – first warmup, second warmup, staging then performance. The inaugural PIAA competitive spirit state championships couldn’t have been better as far as organizers were concerned.

For the two local teams that entered, their best proved not to be quite enough against the stiff competition offered by the 38 other schools in their small varsity division. Neither Greenwood nor Mifflin County made the finals – Although the Huskies had two chances before it was over.

The top 25 percent in each division advanced to the finals from the first round; the next 10 – which included Mifflin County, got a call back to try again, but only one advanced.

The Huskies averaged 59 out of 100 points in their first effort, and stayed close to that with a 59.43 average in the playback. That put them in 18th place, tightly packed with just a tenth of a point separating them from No. 15.

“I was pleased with the girls and pleased with their performance,” Mifflin County coach Collette Bender said. “Now we got a taste of it, now we know what to expect.”

The fact that they got to states still says something about these teams in the first year the PIAA has recognized this form of cheerleading as a sport.

“These girls do not get the respect they deserve until people start coming around and seeing them,” said Bender, who offered up the saying that while athletes lift weights, cheerleaders lift athletes. “And they don’t just lift them, they throw them 10 feet in the air and catch them, and move on to something else – in two minutes and 30 seconds.”

Greenwood coach Chelsea Nastasi also looks for this sanctioning to bring respect to the sport.

“I think it’s going to kind of open up the door and make the general public realize what these girls do,” she said. “Before, we just had our county competition and I don’t think it was taken that seriously. Now that we have a district competition and state competition it’s going to open up doors. And I think it’s going to help bring in more numbers and help build up local squads.”

The Wildcats had an average score of 57.03 in the first round, which was 25th overall. They were fewer than two points from making the cut to get a second chance.

“We’ve got a really strong team,” she said. “We’ve got five graduating seniors and we’re really going to struggle after they leave.”

Just because it was the upper echelon of competition doesn’t mean there weren’t struggles. At times in the busy morning, lifts turned to drops, wrong turns were made and there were tears to go with the smiles. Mifflin County didn’t make any mistakes in its routine, but despite praising the performance Bender knew it could have been better.

“Our warmups, I think they were a little nervous. Our warmup didn’t go great,” she said. “we don’t have mat time. We only had two competitions before today.”

Even a pre-performance sendoff by principal Mark Crosson – one of the few teams who had a high-ranking school administrator present – didn’t make the difference for the Huskies.

“When I think of Mr. Crosson coming, just telling the girls good luck before they went really put things into perspective for them,” said the assistant coach, Kierstin Walker.

Nastasi confirmed that experience paid off for her unit, which was one of the stronger entrants.

“We’ve been practicing since August. This is the fourth time we’ve been on the floor actually doing the routine for an audience, so I think that helps a lot,” she said.

Neither local team wavered in its stunting, and both maintained fluid choreography in the dance portion of their routines. Ultimately, it just came down to the judges’ opinions of which schools did it better.

Although there are mandatory parts of each routine, different schools take different approaches to the performance. Both Mifflin County and Greenwood chose to do their cheer at the outset, while other teams broke the gymnastic portion of their performance to cheer.

“I don’t think there’s a competitive advantage for us,” Bender said. “The girls are breathless and they need to be loud because there’s only 13 of them, so putting them at the beginning made sense to me.”

“We used to do the cheer in the middle. We felt like it kind of made our energy decrease,” Nastasi said. “The girls all wanted to do the cheer first this year, to try to start building on it.”

But the Huskies had one thing about their cheer that most in the audience – several thousand, based on the capacity of Hersheypark Arena – would not have picked up on: It was appropriate in wording for a school that has existed only two years.

“That’s what I keep telling these girls – it starts here,” Bender said. “We are building a tradition in Mifflin County.”