LAGRANGEVILLE, N.Y. -- What a cheerful bunch.
For years, Mepham High School's team cheered on classmates during athletic events -- because, well, that's what cheerleaders do. And Saturday, they even cheered along during their competitors' routines.
But in the last two weeks, this squad certainly has earned some kudos for itself. Give 'em an M-E-D-A-L.
Mepham won its second ever tournament, capturing the coed title in the first state high school cheerleading championships. A week before, the Pirates won the Hudson Valley tournament, earning the program's first championship of any kind.
Clarke placed second in the small-team division and was among the seven Long Island teams that participated.
The near-flawless choreography Mepham's 20-person team displayed was in stark contrast to the scene in the seconds after they were announced the winner: a pack of girls and three boys screaming wildly, rushing to grasp the plaque, then posing for impromptu cellphone pictures.
"This means everything to us and I can't believe it," senior captain Samantha Maddelena said, still giddy. "This is a really close group and that's one of the biggest things for us. The energy we brought is what put us over the top."
That certainly helped -- crowd interaction and showmanship is part of the grading criteria -- but the Pirates scored big by going over the top. They literally flipped out.
The highlight of Mepham's routine was its array of acrobatics that featured twirling 180 backflips, gasp-inducing pyramid tosses and corkscrew dismounts. That repertoire is something this group incorporated last September and has worked on extensively, coaches Jayna Kyriacou and her sister, Nicole Kyriacou-DeBonis, said.
Led by Maddelena, Brenna Sherlock, Juliana Dijkstra and Tyler Dineen, the Pirates earned a score of 107.63 to finish ahead of Walter Panas (97.37).
"We worked really hard for a long time, so it's extremely rewarding," Dineen said. "We came all the way from Long Island, so we definitely didn't want to leave empty-handed."
Mepham will compete in the national championships Feb. 9 in Orlando. But winning the state tournament in its inaugural year is "a great step," Kyriacou-DeBonis said.
"People who think cheerleading isn't a sport don't understand what we go through and how physical this is," senior Nicole Altomare said. "Us getting a state tournament now means that it's starting to get recognized more as a real sport."
Years of petitioning from coaches to have cheerleading deemed a varsity sport became a groundswell and NYPHSAA created a committee three years ago, state cheerleading coordinator Marsha Tessler said. An agreement was reached with the state to have this tournament serve as a pilot of sorts, she said, and its continuance would depend on Saturday's success. The event, which was open to all New York teams, drew 51 squads and about 500 spectators.
"We've been fighting for years to get cheerleading to where it is now, to get that respect," Mercy coach Connie Bedson said. Her team, led by Alysson Castiblanco, Victoria McGrady and Ashley Godsell, competed in the medium bracket, along with Syosset and Centereach. "Our team actually came up and slept over because it's so exciting to finally be involved in something like this."
John Jay (Hopewell Junction) won the large team division, Roosevelt (Hyde Park) took the medium, and Clarke finished behind New Rochelle, 116.97-102.3, in the small-team bracket. Newfield, with Tiffany Medina and Kailyn Mattera, also competed in the small division. Massapequa, led by Samantha Tighe and Ally Bennett, was a large-team contender.
The Rams, behind captain Amanda Cornell, put forth a strong performance despite Alexie Moskowski having to sub in as an injury alternate on short notice. "We're happy with how we did," Clarke coach Liz Lamac said. "We tried some risky stuff and executed all our stunts."
Their routine included several impressive floor tumbles and their signature 360 full-up, which even got John Jay chanting "R-A-M-S!"
"This is a very big deal for us and cheerleading as a whole," Centereach coach Melissa MenDell said. "They take pride in being an actual sport, and not just the kids who are around to cheer on other kids."
Cheers to that.