Have you ever found yourself watching “Cheer” on Netflix and thinking “wow, how do they do that?” If you, like many cheerleaders and non-cheerleaders alike, found the documentary series captivating and watched the small Texas teams take on the National College Cheerleading Competition in Daytona Beach, Florida, I have exciting news for you: our very own New Paltz Cheer Team made it to nationals in Daytona this year, and were able to take home a 3rd place trophy for their division!
The last time we at The Oracle covered the team, they had tryouts to rebuild the team after a two year hiatus due to COVID-19. Only eight members were returning cheerleaders. At competition, 20 people were allowed to compete, so over half of the team going to nationals was brand new. In fact, only fourth-year co-captain, flyer, and tumbler Cayla Mazzei had previously competed at Daytona with the team.
“This was my last competition ever after 17 years of cheerleading. I was really excited to lead the team back to NCA Nationals after not being able to compete the past two years,” Mazzei said. “When the team was first announced, I saw so much potential to grow. They impressed me every day with their hard work and perseverance. As a team, we overcame fears, were open minded to trying new things, preserved and so much more.”
Back-spot Samantha Sroka is a first-year grad student here at New Paltz, who was given the chance to cheer another year after losing her senior year to COVID-19. She was co-captain alongside Mazzei.
“Cheer is mostly mental,” Sroka would often remind the team this before competition and at practice to keep spirits high. “Put yourself and your mind in a position where you can get in the zone, don’t force it. Fate loves the fearless, take a chance and be great.”
Nationals took place from April 7 through April 9, where multiple divisions and college teams from across the country came for their chance to show off their skills. The NCA and NDA, National Cheerleading and Dance Associations, respectively, host the event each year. This event is the biggest competition for college teams. To compete, you first have to receive a “bid,” which a team earns after completing a camp held by NCA instructors. A bid certifies that you have the required skills to compete, and it also assigns the division your team gets to compete in.
As soon as the team at New Paltz received an advanced bid, they got to work immediately. A routine for Nationals is only two minutes and 30 seconds long. It consists of multiple parts.
Many aspects of a routine involve various stunting aspects. Stunting means a group of cheerleaders put a smaller cheerleader up in the air. In partner stunts, there are two bases and a backspot under a flyer. There are basket tosses, which involve launching the flyer as high in the air as possible as she does a stunt while flying. Our flyers did dangerous and impressive back tuck baskets. This means they did a back flip from high in the air! Finally, we have pyramids, where the entire team uses their bodies to build a formation, often up to three girls high in the air.
Third-year flyer Alexia Jablesnik stepped in to do a back tuck basket less than a week before competition, taking on a big job that was necessary for the score sheet. She was a returner, so bravery and teamwork was nothing new to her.
“Cheerleading has been my passion for so long, and I have been both a base and a flyer, and I have gotten injuries doing both. I think what keeps me going is the spirit of the team, all working together to hit a routine,” Jablesnik said. “I also try not to focus on the scary moments or the injuries, and the most important thing to develop within a stunt group is trust. The most important feelings for a flyer to have are trust and confidence, and once that is established, anything can be achieved.”
A routine has other elements besides stunting. There is running and standing tumbling, which some call “flipping,” occurring all throughout the routine. There is also a jumping section and a fierce dance at the end. Both jumps and the dance had the entire team moving together as one.
For less than three minutes on the competition floor, it takes an entire year to prepare. Cheer is not just about physical skill or years of experience, it is about mental toughness and constant practice. The bond with your teammates is unbreakable, which often comes in handy when you have to catch a girl before she hits the ground.
Fourth-year backspot Abbie Salay showed this dedication when she broke her nose this season making sure her flyer didn’t get hurt. Cheerleading a dangerous sport, and many of these injuries come from epic, selfless saves.
“Personally, I will take any injury to make sure my flyer is okay,” Salay said. “She is literally putting her life on the line for the team. I’m not. A broken bone will heal and a bruise will fade but breaking your back or getting a concussion has life long effects. Knowing that she trusts me that much gives me the confidence to perform to the best of my ability. I do my best and work to be better so she is as safe as possible.”
Speaking of injuries, third-year base and tumbler Laurette Joyce overcame a torn ACL just to make it onto the mat this semester.
“I have been cheerleading for about nine years at this point, but I have never been on a team like this,” Joyce said. “I started out this season with an injury and doubting my abilities, but this program has helped me find my love for the sport again.”
The things this team has overcome in the past year are astonishing. From only being allowed to practice two hours Saturday and Sunday in the gym, sustaining injuries and illnesses and having the roster change, the cheer team has had an inspiring rebuilding year. Five alternates were even added to the roster after holding a second round of tryouts spring semester. Nothing could keep the Hawks down this year, although many setbacks tried.
“I am honored that I was a role model and leader for so many people on this team,” Mazzei said. “I expect the program to continue to grow. It would have been helpful to have more practice time to continue progress, however that’s not an option the school has given us.”
“I think every single athlete on the team developed in a positive way, mentally and physically stronger. I am so, so proud of how far this team has come,” Sroka added.
It is my absolute pleasure as not only a writer for The Oracle, but as a cheerleader on this team to write this article and share this story. Being on the mat and competing with this team has been the highlight of my year. Taking third at Nationals after a year of building the team from the ground up is something to be incredibly proud of. To my coaches and teammates: this is for you, with love.
Keep your eyes on the New Paltz Cheer Team, for they are sure to come back next year flying higher and fighting harder than ever.