COMMENTARYHistory made at first state cheer event

If you were in Hershey Saturday, you’d have seen 96 teams in competition, representing their schools in a contest that featured skill and athleticism – and some song and dance.

When the PIAA declared cheerleading – the proper name is competitive spirit – to be a sport, and Mifflin County announced it would have a team, there was no question that this sports department would put forth its best effort to cover the squad like any other team that represents the school.

I learned the week of the state championships that another school in the area has the sport – more on that to come – and with Title IX reporting to the PIAA mandatory beginning this year, it’s no wonder that schools are making sure they have enough opportunities for female athletes to compete.

I’ve taken some good-natured ribbing from my peers over cheerleading – especially when they learned I traded a trip to Tyrone for District 6 team wrestling – but I see no reason to be regretful. Cheer may not be as objective as basketball or football, but it has some fixed scoring elements, penalties, and shares subjective traits with both gymnastics (yes, that’s a sport the PIAA recognizes, too) and even wrestling (“What’s that guy doing on the bottom?”).

Congratulations are due both the Huskies and Greenwood for helping write a new chapter in the state’s sports history book.

Greenwood’s participation came as a surprise to me.

District 3, where the school is located, has had its own cheer program prior to the PIAA adding it, but that would have been considered a club sport – same as Mifflin County prior to this year – and we do varsity.

But, in a perfect illustration of the somewhat haphazard way the PIAA has implemented the new sport, there was no record of Greenwood’s participation on the PIAA website until the Wildcats showed up on the schedule for the state meet.

District 3, I’m told, has some 30 squads involved in competitive spirit – but the PIAA website lists only 12 sponsoring schools, and the Perry County school is not among them.

In fact, if only the 104 teams listed by the PIAA as being sanctioned squads exist, then it would have been pretty disturbing to not make states, since 96 teams qualified.

Call it a work in progress.

What the PIAA does need to do is come up with a better classification and entry system. The number of qualifiers is by district – like any other sport – but the sport is judged by squad size.

Because of that, Greenwood – which in the PIAA survey for the current cycle reported a population of 93 girls – is in the same division as Mifflin County (615 girls), and even a few larger schools.

That means a large school could effectively pare its team down to the maximum number for the small division, and gain a competitive edge because it has a greater pool of athletes to choose from (thus the classification system the PIAA implements for other sports).

If the PIAA is going to judge by division, as the largest national organization, the Universal Cheerleaders Association, does, it at least needs to split the schools up by size first – even if it’s just two classifications, like field hockey or track, with three divisions within each class.

That also means more teams can be recognized at the championship level – 12 instead of the six that will receive trophies this year (only the three winners and runners-up were rewarded Saturday).

There also needs to be a more proportional advancement from the “playback” round, in which teams that didn’t make the finals on their first run get a second chance. The top 25 percent in the first run went straight through this year, then the next 25 percent got a shot at redemption in front of a different judging panel – but only one of those moved on, even though the division groups were of different size.

The next issue will be whether the schools or the PIAA can gain acceptance for competitive spirit as a sport. I’m sure a few will never see it that way (as a hockey fan, I feel the same way about figure skating).

More important, will Title IX proponents see it that way? With a case on that very topic working its way through the federal court system, that remains to be seen. Which side are you cheering for?

Jeff Fishbein is sports editor of The Sentinel. Contact him at