Sachem North, Rocky Point cheer champs

Rocky Point High School's varsity cheerleaders are back on LI after winning their´┐Żsecond national title in two years at the national high school cheerleading championship in Florida last weekend. Videojournalist: John Paraskevas (Feb. 16, 2012)

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Sachem North cheerleaders were stunting on the sidelines as their Flaming Arrows made a thwarted run at a Suffolk football championship and cheering courtside as their basketball team struggled in League I this season. When it finally came to winning a national title, though, they took things into their own hands.

"We were waiting on the mat and we didn't know what to expect," said co-captain Danielle Gresalfi of the tense final minutes of the High School Cheerleading UCA Nationals at the Walt Disney Resort in Orlando, Fla., last Sunday. "We were just so happy that we hit a clean routine and then we heard second place announced . . . we went crazy."

See, second place was announced, and Sachem North cheerleading wasn't it. The Flaming Arrows cheer squad defeated 41 teams to bring home its first national championship in medium-varsity Division I (for crews of 16 girls), and in the process is headlining Long Island's ascent to cheer royalty. Rocky Point girls took the crown in medium-varsity Division II for the second year in a row.

"It's incredibly exciting because we're competing against teams from Hawaii, California, Kentucky, Louisiana, and exposing them to different types of cheerleading styles," said Rocky Point coach Anna Spallina, whose squad beat out 44 teams to take the crown. "It's cheerleader heaven . . . [but] it's two minutes and 30 seconds of hell."

The routines, performed over two days of competition, involve high-level stunts and tumbling, including tosses, full ups, hand fulls and the torch -- a high-flying extension that Sachem North coach Nicole Roggemann said was "part of one of the most difficult stunt sequences we've ever had."

Every team that competes in the finals places, she said, so when it comes time to announce the winners it's a countdown to first place.

"We never said they were going to win, but we prepped them to put out the best performance in that moment," Roggemann said, noting that her team both had to deal with new coaches in her and Christine Sturges, but also a big influx of new and young talent. "It takes your breath away [when you win]. You just want to hug everyone."

Sachem North had only seven returning cheerleaders from last year's third-place team (they competed in large-varsity), while Rocky Point had only six, all captains. Two seniors, Amanda Lang and Liz Johannasen, have been with the squad for five years. The Flaming Arrows were led by their tri-captains, Gresalfi, Kelly McCabe and Jen Isik.

"They inspire each other throughout the season . . . and to win a championship of this caliber, you really have to be a family," Spallina said. "They work with me three hours a day and then condition on the weekends, and then, on their own, they go to gymnastics. You have to be so athletic and so fit."

It can be a thankless gig, and Gresalfi said that toward the end the team was practicing up to seven days a week, but it was well worth it for a win in the nation's most prestigious cheerleading competition.

"It's nothing like 'Bring It On,'" she said, referencing the satirical movie that helped put competitive cheerleading on the map. "It's a lot more competitive and there are all these people who come to support you. It's just insane . . . This year, winning was a great way to go out with a bang."

It also felt pretty good to experience the other side of a good, old-fashioned cheer, she said.

"It's this huge arena and the crowd cheers you on," she said. "I mean, we had the whole stadium cheering for us and we were just in awe."