Local cheer squads show spirit at states

HERSHEY – Collette Bender wanted the Mifflin County competitive spirit squad to grab the judges’ attention right away Friday.

The basket toss that the Huskies used as their opener, surrounded by handsprings and back tucks, was a success – or as Bender described it, eye popping.

“It was!,” she exclaimed after her team left the Giant Center floor in the first round of the PIAA small varsity spirit championships. “That was our way of getting your attention, to say, ‘Watch us. Look at us.'”

Greenwood, the other local school that qualified for the state event and also competes in small varsity – which is based on squad size, not school size – struggled through its routine, with a pair of falls that undoubtedly impacted the Wildcats’ pyramid execution score.

For both teams, it was a one-day tournament – neither Mifflin County nor Greenwood advanced in the group that advanced directly to today’s finals, nor were the teams among those called back to compete for a finals spot today.

Greenwood, ahead of Mifflin County on the performance list, opened with the mandatory cheer that is part of the high school competition, then went into its music routine, which is where the Wildcats struggled. Twice – once mid-routine, again at the end – the top of the pyramid had trouble staying in place.

To the credit of the girls, they didn’t flinch and continued as though nothing had happened.

The Wildcats have a new set of base cheerleaders this winter, but coach Chelsea Nastasi said the changes that impacted the girls more were those to the routine.

“I think it was it being new. Nerves really get the girls on days like today,” she said.

Mifflin County, meanwhile, was perfect, at least until the final pyramid, when a misplaced arm hold made it difficult for the top to stay steady.

“Everything was spectacular up until that last two seconds,” said Bender, especially moves that her squad has not been strong with in the past such as tumbling – an issue that was addressed by bringing in a specialty coach to work with the girls.

“There were girls that came this summer to open gym that could do a cartwheel and now they’re doing back handsprings,” she said. “It’s paying off.”

The Huskies were fluid in their movements on the floor, something Bender said has been another focus at practice.

“You wouldn’t think that you’d have to practice transitions, but you really do,” she said. “How they transition and where they transition is really important to keeping the flow of things going.”

The Huskies moved their cheer from the front to the middle – a strategy move, Bender said – and were able to generate crowd involvement by splitting the arena and pitting fans on opposite sides against one another.

The cheer represents 30 percent of the final score; the music portion, which includes most of the stunting and dance, makes up the other 70 percent.

The pyramid ending, she said, is designed to show that the team still has the strength at the end to do a stunt.

Bender said the holiday stretch was rough, especially with school and event cancellations, not to mention the distance from the District 6 championship – one of the longest for all the teams here.

“A lot of the competitions ended up canceling because there was a lack of participation, including our own. We just didn’t have enough teams registered,” Bender said. “So we had that huge break in between.”

Which she turned to her advantage.

“It helped us make adjustments to our routines,” she said. “Our partner stunts and our pyramids, we increased the difficulty to score more points.”

Bender and Nastasi spent the afternoon after their performances, which were just minutes apart, waiting to see who would advance straight to the finals and who would have a second shot at callbacks this morning.

Despite the troubles Greenwood experienced, the coaches reminded their team to focus on the positive, not on anything that went wrong.

“We changed this routine by a lot in the last two weeks, so I’m really proud of them for making all of the changes that they did, trying to improve it and seeing it through to the end,” Nastasi said.