Wahconah cheerleaders to compete at nationals in Disney World
DALTON — Close your eyes and imagine, for a second, you're being flung into the air and spun a full 360 degrees, trusting three friends on the ground to twirl, grasp and set your feet high above their heads.
Imagine you're one of those bases, entrusted with the well-being of a flier you've been working with for months, or more likely years.
Imagine you're the lone senior on a team full of younger girls. There are 8,000 sets of eyes watching as you make the decisions and communicate to your teammates the direction of their next maneuver.
Imagine you're a coach who has spent eight years rebuilding the program that raised you. Years of work are now in the hands of your athletes, while you stand in front of them, frozen from nerves and exhilaration.
These are all feelings of trust that members of Wahconah Cheerleading will be going through this coming weekend as they travel to Florida for Nationals.
The Warriors earned their bid at the state championships back on Nov. 12 at Shepherd Hill, and have spent the winter training and fundraising to reach their goal of a journey to the National High School Cheerleading Championship at Walt Disney World. Wahconah will compete in the Large Varsity Non-Tumbling Game Day Division.
After flying to Florida mid-week, the 18-member fall unit will compete Sunday at ARENA West, a new venue at the ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando.
"Basically, our goal at the beginning of this year, back in June, was `we are going to Nationals'," coach Nikki DiMassimo said at a recent practice at Nessacus Middle School. "Let's figure out how to get there."
Getting to this point has been a journey on its own. DiMassimo took over the program in 2011 after cheering herself at Wahconah. However, a couple years afterwards, the program had dwindled to just four cheerleaders. Then, current senior captain Kaylea Cornwell entered high school and DiMassimo's coaching started taking hold.
Now, Cornwell is joined by juniors Kaitlyn Cusson, Zoe Danzy, Kelcey Lee, Alisa Marra, Tori Partridge, Jaelyn Roberts, Izadora Vianna and Libby Walker, sophomores Annabella Passarelli and Jaidyn Strack and freshmen Jaedyn Barnaby, Kya Candilore, Patience MacPherson, Monica Santos, Giovanna Vianna and Danielle Whitaker.
"When we started, we were really rough around the edges and needed a lot of work," Marra said. "Getting us here in three years is really astounding to me."
"Between two seasons we went from coming in eighth place to coming in second place. It was wild," added Roberts. "We have a really good coach who always made sure our stuff was absolutely perfect before we leave for competition."
For the current winter season, Wahconah fields a team of 23 student-athletes. Cornwell remains the only senior.
"She runs the warm-ups at the beginning of each practice, starts them out with running, stretching, jumping and reviewing any existing material we have so everyone's ready to go when I begin," said DiMassimo. "Honestly, if I didn't trust her as a captain, this program wouldn't be working the way it is."
Cornwell came up through Dalton Youth Cheerleading — which is run by DiMassimo's mother — and actually coaches the 7th and 8th graders now. She's been cheering for 10 years, and the Warriors won Western Mass. during her freshman year in 2014. Since then, things have only gone up.
"The team was a lot smaller then. My freshman year we only had 11 cheerleaders," said Cornwell, who plans to go to Westfield State to major in social work or psychology. "I feel like with the bigger team we are able to do a lot more."
With a full squad of 18, the Warriors have been able to experiment with different stunts and choreography. In the Game Day Division, they will perform an entire simulated game in three minutes.
"Gameday is all based on crowd appeal, and we've been able to do that at games," said DiMassimo, whose team cheers at every football and basketball game. "Every halftime we do is different, every sideline stunt we're doing different things. We're used to trying to get the crowd engaged."
There will be a green mat laid out, designed to look like a football field. Wahconah will start with a dance routine to a marching band song. That is followed by a round of situational sideline cheers, in which an announcer will give them a football situation and Cornwell will direct her squad on what cheer to recite.
There is then crowd work, with signs and poms, followed by a second stunting dance.
The Gameday Division, featuring 17 teams in Large Varsity is scheduled for Sunday. Wahconah is competing in the semifinals beginning at 2:15 p.m. Then, the Warriors will find out if it is one of the nine advancing teams. The finals start at 4 p.m. in ARENA South, with an awards ceremony to follow.
Fans can watch the event live on VarsityTV by visiting https://tv.varsity.com/events/6034751-2018-uca-national-high-school-cheerleading-championship
The finalists will also air on ESPN in April.
Scoring is based on crowd engagement, crowd effectiveness, hitting solid, clean stunts, being loud and keeping the entire routine inside that three-minute window. The weekend after the team returns from Florida, they will begin their Massachusetts winter competition series, which will include new team members and a completely different routine.
"It's kind of stressful thinking about the two different routines we're trying to do, but it's really exciting," said Cornwell. "I'm really happy I get to go with this team. We all work together really well. It's making it easier and not as nerve-wracking."
Cheerleading is in many ways the ultimate team sport. As Cornwell states, the team must work seamlessly together to be successful and safe. Wahconah will travel with four fliers; Partridge, Izadora Vianna, Candilore and Walker who will be trusting their bases to hoist and catch them smoothly. The team has to trust Cornwell's football knowledge to get them the right cheer, and throughout the entire unit trust must be placed on every athlete to come through with the right moves at the right time.
"We work all year round on conditioning, it takes over your life, but it's a good life to have," said Vianna. "I want to spend more time with the girls. We've been working really hard for this, and hopefully we win."
"Cheer is where all my best friends are, so being able to do something big like this is awesome," added Lee. "Being able to have this experience and share it with the people I care about."
Wahconah's big move is called the full up, a move DiMassimo has been trying to incorporate since taking over in 2011.
"We had not been successful with it, and didn't start it until three weeks ago, and now we have them down," the coach said one week before leaving for Florida. "What they're putting into it is amazing. I never thought this was going to happen. I never thought we'd be hitting these elite stunts in a routine that is supposed to look simple."
The fliers perform one full twirl while being elevated to a standing position on top of the bases' hands.
"Up there you need to be able to trust. If you don't trust the people below you, there's no way it is going to go well," said Walker. "Cheerleading is a very close sport."
Other Warriors echoed those sentiments. The achievement of getting to Nationals is second to the fact that they get to go together.
"I'm so thankful that we worked hard enough to get here and now we actually get to go," said Partridge. "I still can't believe that we're going."
"It's nice to be able to do this with the people I care most about," added Marra. "It's my second family."
The 18 athletes, DiMassimo and assistant coach Shana Collins didn't get to Nationals on their own, though. In total, it was going to take $25,000 to get everyone there for the competition. While the car washes, pancake breakfasts, pasta dinners and candy bars certainly made a dent, Wahconah leaned on a supportive booster club and local businesses and families to help pave the way.
"The community has been very supportive with donating and helping us out to get there," said Cornwell.
"The Booster Club has worked really hard, and the community has really rallied around us which has been great," said DiMassimo. "About half of what we've raised has been donations from businesses, from football parents, because they see what we do at the games and they believe we can do this."
The 18 cheerleaders and their coaches traveling from Dalton to Disney World believe they can do this. And come Sunday, their eyes will be wide open.
Mike Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @CLNS_Walsh on Twitter and 413-496-6240.
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