Mount Sinai, Rocky Point cheerleading teams win national titles

The Mount Sinai High School cheerleaders pose in

The Mount Sinai High School cheerleaders pose in one of their stunts on Friday, Feb 14, 2014, after winning the 2014 Universal Cheerleaders Association national championship for their division in Orlando, Fla. Photo Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

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The music skipped. Their hearts skipped. Then the music just stopped, and for a minute and 17 seconds, the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando went silent.

The Mount Sinai cheerleaders traveled hundreds of miles, endured a seven-day-a-week practice schedule for 10 months, and taught themselves to routinely fling their bodies off teetering pyramids, and they were about to lose a national title because their Pitbull soundtrack had decided to misbehave midway through the final routine.

Then, a team captain started counting: 5-6-7-8. "Then the entire arena started counting, standing up and cheering them on," coach Samantha Melella said.

That day last week, the cheerleaders were cheered.

"We hit our routine perfectly," Stephany Ankelman said. "It's so mental . . . I mean, you go into hibernation during cheering season. You see nothing but these 25 girls . . . so [when we won], we were all in tears at that point. No one knew what to do."

Welcome to the unbridled competitiveness of the Universal Cheerleaders Association national championship. Welcome, too, to the two Long Island victors: Mount Sinai, which created its own music on the way to its first title, in the Large Varsity Division II category, and cheer dynasty Rocky Point, which won its third in four years, in Medium Varsity Division II (divisions are based on enrollment).

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The two teams, coached by the mother-daughter duo of Anna Spallina (mother, Rocky Point) and Melella (daughter, her former assistant coach), have tried to put an end to the all-to-common notion that cheerleaders are less than athletes.

But if sparkly bows, bright lipstick and swishy skirts don't look like the typical outfits of tireless competitors, Sinai captain Alexa Signorile invites you to look just a little closer, at her bright white national champion jacket.

"It just proves that we're up there with every other sport, because we're the only team in Mount Sinai history to bring back a national title," she said. "It's insane, absolutely insane. I run track and cheerleading is harder."

At Rocky Point, it's a way of life. The crew took third place last year, and while most would consider 'third in the nation' an accomplishment, they took it as an affront, a challenge.

"We got off the plane on Tuesday and we were all back in the gym on Sunday," Kaitlyn McDonald, one of the five captains said. "We weren't leaving with another third place finish."

'The wrath of Spallina,' as their own coach calls it, is tireless. Practices are "four hours, if we're lucky," Emily O'Connor said, with few breaks.

"It's your only schedule," McDonald added. "You have nothing else."

Homecoming is fun, Spallina said, and the girls have a good time on the sideline, "but they live to compete.

"I tell them to put their eye-black on, which means put on your lipstick and go to work," she said. "They want to win."

The teams practice college-level stunts and tumbling -- back handspring connections, "and roundoff front handspring fulls at the end of our routine [for tumbling], which shows our athleticism," Signorile said. "We're dead tired at that point, and we do the double-ups and the high to high [full arounds -- high level stunts]."

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But the biggest challenge isn't always completing any particular move, it's synchronizing them, said Rocky Point's Jaclyn Lang. "Last year, we lost because one of our motions was off in the dance," she said. "We lost by 0.7 . . . it was heartbreaking."

After, Ashley Goldstein said, "we wanted it more than ever."

The practices were harder, the skills were more advanced, "and we'd have these long [sessions]," Danielle Ortolani said. "If we didn't do it right, we'd keep doing it until it was perfect."

That's a long way removed from middle school cheer, where many joined because it was just the thing to do. Many give up by varsity, Goldstein said -- the schedule is too restrictive and the competition is too hard.

"We work as hard or harder than any other athlete," O'Connor said.

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The championship rings make it worth it, Lang said. And the trophy and the medals, and knowing you achieved everything you could in a sport. And then there's the jackets.

"We're all still wearing it," Ankelman said.

"I never take it off," Signorile said. Well . . . almost. "Our teacher asked to try it on."

That's right: The cheered on cheerleaders have fans, too.

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