Newsday Cheerleader of the Year: Emily Bott, East Islip, Flyer, Sr.
Not too long after mastering her first steps, Emily Bott was learning how to stunt.
The East Islip standout has been tumbling since she was 4 years old. She was named a “child prodigy” cheerleader and quickly became a national tumbling sensation.
But she couldn’t wait to compete for her school squad. In seventh grade, she started cheering at high school football games before being moved up to varsity for the winter competition season.
The 2022 All-Long Island second-team selection and this year’s Newsday Cheerleader of the Year is the first and only cheerleader to be a member of the East Islip team for 11 seasons, including both fall and winter. Her incredible tumbling skills have helped set her squad’s routines apart.
The senior has recovered from multiple injuries during her tenure, her most intensive requiring corrective spine surgery, which left her unable to compete at the start of the 2021-2022 season.
“She came back stronger than ever. It was like she never missed a beat,” coach Ariel Abesamis said.
This season, Bott’s tumbling pass in East Islip’s routine consisted of a series of college-level skills including a whip full, an Arabian through to a handspring full, two whips to a full, double fulls, triple fulls, bounce back passes, and more. According to Abesamis, she can complete these on a dead mat, which has no springs underneath it, or on the outdoor track.
Bott can take her skills into the air, too.
“She’s the type of flyer that you can put in a less experienced group because you can trust her and know confidently that her flying skills will help those around her become better athletes as well,” Abesamis said. “She is a once-in-a-lifetime athlete to come through this program.”
Bott will continue her athletic career at Baylor on both academic and athletic scholarships to be a part of their seven-time NCATA championship acrobatics and tumbling team. She plans to study speech pathology.
Nassau Cheerleader of the Year: Sara Reise, Plainedge, Flyer, Sr.
The flyer was an All Long Island second-team selection last year and was the recipient of the 2023 Nassau County Athlete of the Year-Keane Award and the 2023 Nassau County Athletic Cheerleading Scholarship.
She has competed with her standing full all four years and added a specialty pass this season that included a roundoff whip hand hand full. Her stunts are also top tier, including a diamidov entry to handstand through to extended, full arounds, 360 switch up to arabesque, high to high tick tocks, back handspring up release inversion, roundoff up release inversion to heel stretch, and a low to high 360 switch.
The senior captain’s talent and leadership have been crucial components to the team's multitude of success during her tenure: two-time county champions (2023, 2020), UCA Game Day Regional champions (2021), NYS Game Day East Invitational champions (2021) and runner-up (2022), a fourth place (2021) and runner-up finish at the Empire Regional (2023), and a 12th place (2020) and third place finish at UCA Nationals (2022).
“She is without question the most dedicated, consistent, hard-working, passionate, and humble athlete,” coach Marie Esposito said.
Jessica Balkunas, Wantagh, Flyer and base, Sr.
Balkunas has been a captain for three of her five years on the team and has competed as a flyer/main base or side base in the center stunt group each year. She is Wantagh’s only member to compete with multiple fulls. She came back from an ACL injury last season and was still able to throw three fulls, two standing tucks, and other elite skills in this year’s routine. Balkunas has been a youth cheerleading coach for six years and is a member of Nassau’s NICE committee.
Natalie Cruz, Farmingdale, Flyer, Sr.
Farmingdale was one of the top teams in the state this season and the work of Cruz was a huge reason why. The flyer was one of two seniors on the Farmingdale squad who helped the young Dalers to their second county title, a third-place finish at the state championship, and to the UCA National Game Day Championship finals. In her freshman year, she quickly perfected her stunting to help the program win its first state title. Since then, she has performed and hit the most elite stunting and tumbling skills with any base or back spot beneath her.
Katelyn Dawson, Shoreham-Wading River, Flyer, Sr.
The three-year captain has helped grow the program with her elite skills. Dawson performs a running full in the routine’s tumbling pass and stunts with hand-in-hand inverts, roundoff inverts, 540 full ups, high-to-high tick tocks to multiple positions, and single base switching. She ends her career as a two-time county champion, 2023 UCA National Championship finalist (4th), 2023 state runner-up champion, and UCA All-American.
Kayla Fallarino-Forte, Seaford, Flyer, Sr.
The captain was one of the key leaders for the state champion squad. Fallarino-Forte has executed elite stunts and tumbled with ease and precision for the past five years to help the Vikings remain undefeated in the county. “She is one of the most dedicated athletes and is a valuable asset to the team as well as a strong positive leader for her peers and the younger programs,” coach Lisa Ferrari said.
Ashley Kandell, Mount Sinai, Flyer, Sr.
Kandell’s exceptional stunting and tumbling skills helped the Mustangs continue their success as the state’s most decorated squad. A member since she was in eighth grade, the flyer has won a UCA National Championship (2019) and four county and state championships (2023, 2022, 2020, 2019). Kandell is committed to Morehead State.
Julianna Morris, Smithtown West, Main Base and Flyer, Sr.
Morris has all-around skill and energy that you can’t help but notice when she competes. Prior to this season, she underwent ACL surgery from a tumbling injury yet came back into the competitive season with her same strong skills. She also stepped up in the middle of the season when the team needed a new flyer. “She has never missed a beat,” coach Kristen Perri said. “Her flexibility, positivity and determination make her a true one-of-a-kind athlete.” Morris also helped lead the Bulls to a UCA Game Day title in February.
Kelly O’Leary, MacArthur, Main base, Sr.
It was hard to miss O’Leary, who was front and center and performed with the ultimate precision. She was brought onto the squad her freshman year as a secondary base. When the team was in need of a main base the following year, she stepped up and showed her ability and willingness to be versatile on the mat. Within the season, O’Leary was executing some of the most difficult twisting, inversion and single-base stunts allowed at the high school level. The captain threw elite tumbling passes this year including a roundoff tuck through to a back handspring tuck, a roundoff handspring layout and a standing tuck.
Kayla Unterweiser, Connetquot, Flyer, Sr.
The six-year squad member excels in every aspect as she can be found at the forefront of the tumbling, stunts, jumps and cheer sections of Connetquot’s routine. She competes with a back handspring up, hand in hand to an extended position, standing full twisting layout, and roundoff handspring full all within seconds. She is a two-time All-Long Island first-team selection and was a 2021 second-teamer.
Nassau Coach of the Year: Lisa Ferrari, Seaford
Ferrari has been a coach in the Seaford program for the past 15 years. It was no surprise that her squad quickly became one of the county’s strongest when cheerleading became a fully sanctioned high school sport by the state in 2016. Ferrari’s leadership has helped the squad remain undefeated since the 2017 season. This year, she brought Seaford its sixth straight county title and second consecutive state championship.
Suffolk Coach of the Year: Megan Wesolowski, Mount Sinai
Wesolowski’s success at the helm of the state’s most decorated squad was displayed again this year as she and co-coach Matthew Kenefick guided Mount Sinai to their seventh county and fifth state titles.
Rosalina Battagliola, Longwood, Main base, Sr.
Kacey Berger, Sachem East, Flyer, 8th
Lauren Dean, MacArthur, Base, Sr.
Alana Fragoletti, Mount Sinai, Main base, Sr.
Juliana Giachetti, Kellenberg, Main base, Sr.
Ava Lombardo, Wantagh, Main Base, Sr.
Stella Manikas, Hauppauge, Main base, Sr.
Amanda Martinez, Freeport, Back spot, Sr.
Miranda Montes, Seaford, Main base, Sr.
Gina Palmentieri, Smithtown East, Flyer, Sr.
Safiya Pulizzi, Massapequa, Flyer, Jr.
Sofia Rella, Division, Main base, Sr.
Olivia Snyder, West Babylon, Back spot, So.
Lauren Stea, East Meadow, Flyer, Sr.
Kiera Wheeler, Ward Melville, Flyer, Sr.