With music blaring off the walls at the Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee, Florida, on Dec. 15, Cheshire Junior Cheerleading coaches felt that the time was right to sit down with their 25-member team and prepare for the announcement of final standings in the American Youth Cheer National Championship. With hands clenched together, the sixth through eighth grade girls and their instructors waited patiently until the speaker came to their D-14 Large Level 2 category.
“We knew there were five teams left, so after they didn’t say our name for fifth and fourth (place), we knew that we were going to get a medal,” reflected eighth grader Catherine Norton, whose mother Barbara Graziosa, coaches on the team.
While hoping to earn first place, the local group was ecstatic upon hearing they had earned second in the country and secured the highest finish in program history. In placing behind only the Holmdel Hornets (New Jersey), the cheerleaders received medals and a trophy to take home to Cheshire.
“It was like an elephant sitting on your chest,” recalled Graziosa, of waiting for the final results. “When they called us at (number) two, we all stood up and started screaming in excitement.”
The competition, consisting of performances on Dec. 14 and 15, was an experience years in the makings. While working together for the last seven years, the Cheshire squad hadn’t reached the national level until this season. As an organization, Cheshire Junior Cheerleading hadn’t had a National representative since their first competitive season in 2013.
“To watch the girls compete, the pride is indescribable,” said Graziosa. “We had sixth through eighth graders performing at their absolute best.”
At a youth cheerleading competition, teams perform a two-and-a-half-minute routine of cheer, stunting, tumbling passes, jumps, and dance sequences for judging. While the common idea of cheerleading comes from performing at athletic contests, the Cheshire girls enjoyed being able to provide a different perspective at Nationals.
“It was our time to show what cheerleading is,” said Norton. “A competition allows us to show that we can cheer independently.”
For the local girls, the road to Nationals started with a victory in the Shoreline Youth Football Conference event on Oct. 19 at North Haven High School. On Nov. 2, the girls placed runner-up in the state event at New Haven’s Floyd Little Athletic Center.
On Nov. 23, the team traveled to Lowell, Massachusetts for their fourth consecutive New England Youth Cheer Competition. After coming up short of Nationals in their previous three trips, the team earned third place to finally punch their ticket to Florida.
“It was crazy,” recalled eighth grader Mackenzie Dudeck. “We started screaming for a while after that (announcement).”
To help offset expenses for Nationals, Cheshire Junior Cheerleading started fundraising and looking for sponsors. By creating a page at www.gofundme.com, the team has raised $2,290.
“We had a lot of support from the Cheshire community,” said Graziosa.
While working on their routine for months, the team didn’t know what to expect at Nationals.
“There were teams competing from eight different regions around the country and we hadn’t seen them perform before,” said Graziosa. “The girls were focused on competing as a team and do what we had practiced all year.”
The team had a busy schedule upon arriving in Florida on Dec. 11. First, Cheshire had a practice and then went through a routine review by the safety judges.
“One of the judges saw us at regionals and complimented us on how safe our routine was,” said Graziosa. “We were recognized for having the best warm-up.”
The next night, cheerleading teams attended a private party with American Youth Football squads at Universal Studios.
“It was nice to have football (players) and cheerleaders together,” stated Graziosa.
The following day, Cheshire girls worked on techniques and made changes to their routine.
“The families were able to relax for the rest of the day,” said Graziosa.
On Saturday night, the team finally had their chance to perform nationally. In a new twist for the girls, they entered the stage through fog from a smoke machine.
“It was so different,” said Dudeck. “It (the stage) was in front of a huge crowd and a lot of fancy lights.”
After feeling nervous, the girls were very happy to hear that their routine had received a perfect zero (no deduction points) from the judges. Cheshire placed second (82.97) to Holmdel (86.3) and with their top-five finish, the team qualified to compete in the Super Sunday finals.
“At the hotel, we talked to other teams who hadn’t made it and that made me feel good, knowing that we were still competing,” explained Norton.
With a quick turnaround to competing the next morning, the coaching staff of Graziosa, Carolyn Dudeck, Jennifer Falcone, Sarah McManus, Kristina Veilleux, and Regina Schiavi spoke to the girls about keeping their mindset simple.
“We told the girls to focus on beating our scores from yesterday and don’t worry about anything else,” Graziosa said.
The girls followed through on that instruction, raising their score by almost four points (86.53).
“I tell the girls that I want you to come off the mat, look me in the eye, and say I did my best for the team. The girls did that for me,” said Graziosa.
After finishing second nationally and returning home, the team now faces the end of an era. Of the 25-member squad, 12 eighth graders will be graduating this year.
“We started out in third grade cheering against small towns,” recalled Norton. “It never hit me that we were going to go to Florida and face teams from other regions.”
With the national trophy going into the showcase at Dodd Middle School, the eighth graders are excited about leaving a legacy with their teammates.
“These people are so nice. I think we have gotten so much closer through cheerleading,” stated Mackenzie Dudeck.
In going to CHS next year, Norton wants to extend a family legacy. Her mom was a former All-American and also coached the Rams from 1992-96. Her aunt also competed nationally at CHS.
“It is like having a personal trainer in cheerleading,” said Norton, of going to her mom for advise and questions. “I want to cheer on Friday nights. My great-grandfather (Chet Chmura) has his name on the press box (at CHS). That is cool, too.”
Mackenzie Dudeck’s older sister Maddie is already a member of the Rams cheerleading team.
“I’ve never cheered with her before and I hope I make it (the team) next year,” said Dudeck.
Graziosa plans to step down as a junior cheerleading coordinator, but will still coach the competitive team.
“I’ve been working with the (returning) girls for so long and feel like I would be letting them down by not finishing out with them,” said Graziosa.
This year, Cheshire had 55 cheerleaders in grades three through eight. Along with the competition team, girls also cheered at Cheshire Junior Football games.
“I hope that this (Nationals trip) will lead to more girls wanting to cheer and learn more about it,” added Carolyn Dudeck.