The High School South cheerleading squad has gone from worst to first in a year. The Pirates won the Large Varsity–Non Tumble Division at the Northeast Regional competition of the Universal Cheerleaders Association.
By winning with a minimum qualifying score, the Pirates receive a bid to the UCA National High School Cheerleading Championships that will be held at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fla., in February. They are the first cheer team from WW-P South to reach nationals.
“It’s amazing,” said Nicole Lemmond, a senior co-captain. “It’s just crazy that we’ve gotten the opportunity to go and at least try to make it to finals.”
Pirate seniors couldn’t be sure that they’d ever reach nationals. They have had four different head coaches in four years, only started talking about competing at regionals last season and finished last in their competitions last year.
“It’s very exciting and very rewarding after putting in four years of hard work and not really going anywhere with the cheer team. This senior class did a good job of transforming this team into a competitive squad,” said senior co-captain Taylor Russo. “Just the honor that we get to go to Disney is a very rewarding experience.”
South has undergone a complete turnaround this year. They won the Northeast Regional championship, then placed second at the Colonial Valley Conference Championship. They also won their division when they went to a second regional, the Pocono Regional, to solidify their nationals qualifying status. The Pirates did not miss a single stunt at the Pocono Regional and had no deductions—the first time that has happened, said Pirates head coach Briana Guarrasi. “Nothing fell. We had zero deductions. That was something to really celebrate for them.”
It’s been an entire season to celebrate. It started with cheer camp together in August, then they choreographed their routine before Guarrasi was named their head coach. She didn’t see them at a practice until Aug. 25.
“I was brought back after preseason,” Guarrasi said. “Just seeing the first time running the routine, it wasn’t perfect but it looked good. They were getting it. We knew the girls had some potential. At the first competition, it was amazing.”
“I think there were a couple factors why we’re better,” Lemmond said. “For one, there were new coaches, a new set of eyes and they’re super positive all the time. That helped everyone from last year.”
She said they also came together better as a team. “It wasn’t separated by grade, or we didn’t have as many cliques this year. Most importantly, I think me and Taylor work well together.”
Added Russo: “We also are in the proper division. Last year we were in the wrong division and we just didn’t do well. Once we got in the right division, we’ve been very successful.
The Pirates have been developing steadily all year. It is their confidence and expectations that have grown meteorically over the year. Things started positively with Guarrasi and Oertel’s arrival.
“We knew when she came in that she knew what she was doing,” Lemmond said. “She was a cheerleader at Penn State and our assistant coach also cheered. I knew when we started learning our routine it was going to go well, and I didn’t realize how much talent the freshmen had.”
Even with a strong start to their season, the Pirates had to overcome an underdog mentality that may have been the biggest hurdle.
Said Russo: “We’re used to placing last in all our competitions, and this year when we’ve been getting first we thought, wait, we’re actually really good. It’s been a hard thing to shake, but our coaches have pushed us to get out of that mentality and realize that our skill level is equal to—if not better than—other teams in our division.
Having qualified for nationals, the team has been aggressively fundraising to support its trip, and business sponsors and private donors can contact the athletic department to support the team.
WW-P South must also submit a video to the UCA to show that they have a legal routine. They began working at improving their difficulty level after their perfect stunts at the Pocono Regional.
Said Russo: “We’re trying to push ourselves to make sure we can compete with the rest of the nation. The South is very competitive. We know we’re doing well right now, but that might not be the same for the South.”
Their regional performances have given them confidence that they can do well in Disney. The Pirates have set a standard to shoot for at nationals.
“We’re really striving to beat our own scores so that we can say we improved and can say we did what we had to to improve ourselves,” Russo said. “Also, after our last competition, we looked it up and we actually beat the two teams that placed fourth and fifth nationally last year.”
WW-P South has been what Guarrasi calls a “performance” team. They are at their best under the pressure of competition, and that bodes well for nationals.
“It’s nerve wracking,” Guarrasi said. “They’re going to be on ESPN. It’s not just the Northeast, but the whole country could potentially be watching them. To be the first team to ever go from West Windsor South, that’s something they’re so proud of.”
None of the WW-P South cheerleaders has been to a competition as big as nationals. They are looking to go in relaxed and perform their best and see where that lands them.
Ruso said the team’s top goal is to get to Day 2 and get into finals. “We’re not sure how we’d place since we haven’t been there before, but as a team we’ve collectively decided that we’re good enough to keep pushing, to keep doing this and prove people that looked at us last year as losers and say, now we’re going to be a lot better, raise the difficulty and come out on top.”