Surreal. The realization of dreams. Tears of joy. Ecstasy.
They were just some of the emotions stirred within the Steinert cheerleading captains on Nov. 16 when the announcement boomed out in the West Windsor-Plainsboro North gym that “This year’s CVC Grand Champion is Steinert High School!”
Cue the Joyful Reaction button.
“It felt almost surreal because receiving that title is such a huge accomplishment for us as cheerleaders,” Olivia Gulsby said. “The energy we felt from one another and from our fans in that moment was unmatched.”
“It’s a dream come true,” Julia McCarty added. “We were all jumping up and down, hugging each other and our coach. It was the happiest moment of my life. All the countless hours of hard work, dedication, and even tears over the past four years had finally paid off. I was ecstatic.”
And finally, Bella Cantalice said, “The second I heard it was us, I just cried. I can confidently say that the moment we won was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. I knew everything the team had been through was worth it.”
It had indeed been worth the wait. For the first time in Nicole Galipo’s five years as head coach, the Spartans’ pyramid stood above all the rest at the Colonial Valley Conference Cheer Championships.
In a competition that consisted of five different divisions, Steinert bested Robbinsville in the Varsity All-Music category, which avenged a loss by 1/10th of a point to the Ravens in Galipo’s first year. The highest score of the five division champs was then crowned Grand Champion, and the Spartans’ 82.5 was enough to defeat 11 other teams.
“They went in really confident,” Galipo said. “They had had a really good week of practice leading up to the competition. The girls all went in with a strong, confident mindset and it showed and it got better as they went on, they just kept executing.”
Rounding out the 20-girl team are Kristen O’Brien, Victoria Verdi, Marissa Hassan, Bella Toleno, Vanessa Makai-Calcese, Leyla Ekiz, Macy McLaughlin, Macy DeBlois, Meredith Schroeder, Molly Vizzini, Lauren McCarthy, Brea Todaro, Carmi Martucci, Jenna Kaboski, Mary Boyer, Kat Kusnirik and Amber Bilinski. Lauren Iraca missed the competition with a strained ankle but was on the sidelines providing support.
It is a group that supported each other throughout the climb to the top.
“This is a very special group of girls,” McCarty said. “We all work so hard and are constantly looking for ways to improve. I think what also made me so confident in our ability to win is the very special bond that we have. This is such a supportive and loving team. We’re constantly building each other up, and working together in order to bring out confidence in each other. We aren’t just a team, we’re a family.”
In performing the 2½-minute routine, Steinert was scored on its stunting, tumbling and dance. The judging is based on cleanliness, timing and synchronization.
“Our division tends to be the toughest category,” Galipo said. “Some of the divisions that competed don’t have tumbling; we’re kind of more advanced in that area.”
A more difficult routine helps drive up the score if it’s performed well, which it was. The championship marks the culmination of hundreds of hours of practice, starting when the team was chosen last May.
“We’ve been putting this routine together for months, constantly fixing and changing, to make this the best possible routine,” McCarty said. “As we kept building, we knew this was the best routine we’ve ever had.”
Cantalice said this was more than just a six-month journey for the seniors. It was more like four years.
“Since my freshman year everyone on the team wanted one thing: to win CVCs,” she said. “Last year I was not sure what to expect from the team because it takes time to learn people’s strengths. Once September hit, I knew this was the team that could win.”
Gulsby felt that walking into the WWPN gym, Steinert was looked upon as underdogs. She also knew that the strides the team had made over the past year had given the Spartans a confidence reserved for the team to beat. Once things got rolling, that confidence just kept growing.
“At the start of our routine, you could feel the energy on the mat and it felt like we had the whole room focused in on us,” Gulsby said. “We definitely kept this up throughout the performance because we knew we could nail it and we all wanted it.”
Cantalice added, “Going into it I was extremely confident. The difficulty of our routine was high, but our confidence was even higher. It’s a matter of having the right athletes, the right routine, and the dedication from everyone to make it happen. Coach Galipo made sure that we had all the components that we needed to win.”
McCarty re-affirmed that last statement.
“Our coach has taught us to believe in ourselves, no matter what, and has pushed us when we needed it the most,” she said. “She has stood by us through it all and I can’t thank her enough for the hours, patience and pure dedication she gives us. We wouldn’t be where we are now without her.”
And while that belief led to a championship and was the climax to a dream, it hardly ended the workload for the year. Next up was the Thanksgiving football game with Hamilton, followed by a winter of cheering on the basketball team.
“We always talk about how we are cheerleaders first and performers second,” said Galipo, who is still deciding whether to enter the team in a national competition in January. “Our main goal is to cheer on the sports teams at the school. Competing at things like the CVC championships is what the girls love to do but they know their job is to first be a cheerleader for the football team and basketball team.”
It goes beyond even that, as the girls do volunteer work for Joey’s Little Angels and Miracle League and participate in the Spartans Thanksgiving Food Drive.
“As a cheerleader we represent the face of Steinert pride and spirit,” McCarty said. “Having a positive attitude and encouraging others is what this sport has taught us to do, and this shows in our normal school day. Additionally, our volunteering in events further demonstrates our positive, encouraging attitudes that we hope rub off on other students.”
Gulsby noted that “we have the responsibility of representing our school and giving a positive face to the Steinert community. We love what we do and we enjoy spreading the positivity and spirit that cheerleaders should.”
Cantalice feels it goes even beyond the walls of Steinert.
“I feel it’s our job to better not just our school but our community,” she said. “Going to games and competitions are what people think you sign up for with cheerleading, but giving back and going the extra mile is what is expected. We are a symbol of encouragement and happiness, so that is what we strive to do every day.”
And if a grand championship happens to come with the deal, all the better.