Northeast Times

Much to cheer about

Bring it on: The St. Hubert cheer­lead­ing squads gathered to train at the school this past Sunday. All four cheer teams qual­i­fied for the na­tion­al tour­na­ment, to be held this week­end at Walt Dis­ney World in Or­lando. Nearly 80 cheer­lead­ers will make the trip for Lisa McNesby and Mari­an Menow’s Brown and Gold squads. MARIA POUCH­NIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

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.” ••

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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