On a recent Sunday afternoon inside the gymnasium at St. Hubert, athletic director Mike Prendergast looked toward the nearly 100 cheerleaders assembled and quipped, “Look at this … it’s like West Side Story in Mayfair.”
Of course, it was controlled chaos, as this is what a gym of four distinct cheerleading squads looks like three days before a trip to Orlando to participate in the National High School Cheerleading Championship. The competition, described as “the most prestigious cheerleading competition in the country” on its official website, has become an annual February destination for the St. Hubert program. Airing on ESPN and ESPN2, the competition will be broadcast to more than 100 million homes in 32 countries, and the Bambies, as usual, will be smack dab in the middle of the action.
First, some brief history.
St. Hubert has two cheerleading squads — Brown and Gold -— with each split up into a varsity and JV level. The school used to just have one, the Gold team, as the Brown squad formerly operated under the Father Judge umbrella, cheering at the school’s sporting events and competing with its name. Prior to 2009, Judge cheerleaders came from St. Hubert, Nazareth Academy and St. Basil, then a rule was implemented that Judge cheerleaders could only be St. Hubert students. Then, Judge very recently discontinued cheerleading, so Prendergast invited head coach Lisa McNesby’s squad to join the Gold team as St. Hubert Brown, allowing both teams to remain separate entities despite practicing in the same building and competing in many of the same competitions.
Now, St. Hubert will be the first school to take four teams to compete in Orlando, as every single one of them qualified for nationals at a November Universal Cheerleading Association regional tournament in Toms River, N.J. Needless to say, it’s an exciting time for the school.
“This will be our tenth nationals,” said McNesby, who has coached teams to first- and second-place finishes in consecutive years. “It’s a very big time commitment, and you have to love doing it to put forth this much effort, because it’s a yearlong commitment.”
“Some of these girls I’ve had since fifth grade, so to see them go from that to a senior, it’s just awesome,” added Marian Menow, who coaches the Brown squads, which will be competing at nationals for the third time. “We look for the whole package, not just ability; to be a cheerleader, you need to be positive and a strong leader. If not, it won’t work. It’s about being a team and a family.”
McNesby (Class of 1995) and Menow (Class of 2004) are both former St. Hubert cheerleaders, and they’ve put in so much time in giving back in part to dispel the notion that cheerleaders are simply a secondary presence at St. Hubert athletic events. This is part of their season, yes, but just a small one.
Tryouts begin in April and once the teams are formed, they practice their skills and routines anywhere from three to five times a week. Their competition season lasts for a few subsequent months, where they hone their stunts, working on aspects such as teamwork, agility and tumbling (gymnastics). The teams attend a camp together in the Poconos every August, then begin their sideline and halftime routines during events like football and basketball games. This occurs all while the cheer teams are simultaneously training for nationals. For example, the Varsity Brown squad, in addition to finishing first at the Toms River regional, took first in the Burlington Township competition, second at the Haverford High School competition, second at the Upper Darby competition and fourth at the UCA Garden State Open., while the Gold team placed in the same competitions in addition to finishing first at the Catholic League competition. As senior Gold member Alex Bishop said, “We’ve worked four days a week all year to get two minutes and thirty seconds to determine how good you are in the nation. It’s nerve-wracking, but exciting.”
Some Hubert’s cheerleaders said it could at times be annoying to work so hard year-round at something that most outsiders view as a glorified hobby and not a competitive sport, which it is (cheerleading is indeed listed as a PIAA sport).
“Nobody really notices the dedication or hard work we put into it,” said Brown senior Kelsey Kentner. “No one sees the stunts, the tumbling, the motions we work on … they assume it’s simple, something we only do at football games. But it’s a lot of work, and we’re constantly changing to make ourselves better. People think we just yell and jump around in a short skirt, but it’s physically hard.”
Added fellow Brown senior Marisa Murphy: “People say it’s not a real sport, and that’s frustrating. We put as much practice time in that a football player does. People take us for granted, the girls who just scream and hold the pom-poms, but we brush it off. We’re good at what we do, and we know that.”
All in all, McNesby carries 45 cheerleaders (20 varsity, 25 JV) and Menow 33 (12 varsity, 21 JV). Other area schools -— St. Matt’s, Archbishop Ryan, Archbishop Carroll, Pope John Paul II and Burlington Township, to name a few — will also be competing, but nobody will bring the inflated numbers that St. Hubert will.
“A lot of schools don’t even get bids, so we’re very fortunate to get four on our first try,” McNesby said. “The girls are stressed, but excited. It’s something they look forward to every year. It’s been a special year for us, because the school is so supportive and that’s great to know everyone is 100 percent behind you.”
The cheerleaders, who will compete on Saturday and Sunday in Orlando, form a sisterly connection that “goes beyond these walls for these four years they’re here,” Menow said. “It creates a bond that lasts forever. These girls will always treasure that. It’s a sisterhood. It’s real, and they experience it.”
No matter if the teams garner a first-place finish or don’t place at nationals, the seniors attested that it has been an unforgettable ride. St. Hubert, so known for fostering a community environment inside its walls, will be sending its most visible school ambassadors to a national tournament, a responsibility the girls on the teams don’t take lightly.
“This school and this team is the reason I’m the girl I am today,” Murphy said. “If we do the best routine we can do, then we’ll be first in our minds no matter what. We want to win, but sometimes, it’s not just about that.”
“For a lot of us, it’s the last time we’ll ever cheer,” Kentner said. “I want everyone to get the best out of it, from the seniors whose last time it is, to the freshmen in understanding this isn’t just a fun trip, but a climax of everything we’ve built to get to this point.”
For Bishop, reflection on the experience was more simple.
“Our coaches are amazing, and every single one of us supports each other, whether you’re on Brown or Gold,” she said. “A lot can go wrong, and we realize that it’s a lot of little things that make one big thing come together. Our goal is to just hit the best routine we can and leave it at that.” ••