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Cheerleading gets its due as a high school varsity sport

Mt. Sinai cheerleaders get one chance to impress

Mt. Sinai cheerleaders get one chance to impress the judges at Clarke High School in Westbury on Dec. 19, 2015. Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

It’s a far cry from the routines you see at high school football games.

After years of being on the sidelines, cheerleading has finally broken through to be recognized as a full-blown varsity sport, complete with choreographed routines, gravity-defying flips and stunts and other gymnastic-like feats leading up to a state tournament conducted by the same governing body as basketball, wrestling and volleyball.

The competitions are fierce and pressure-packed. The practice schedules are intense, lasting as long as 2 1⁄2 hours a day. “Sometimes there are people with tears on the bus ride home,” said Hauppauge High School cheerleader Gillian Katsumi, a senior.

As far as varsity sports go, this one immediately joins the ranks of the most demanding.

“People’s mentality a lot of times is, ‘It’s just cheerleading,’ ” said Rocky Point coach Anna Spallina. “But it’s not about pom-poms and skirts. We work really, really hard. If these girls are not athletes, I don’t know who is. I think that with time, everyone’s going to see it. And now everyone has a real chance to.”

In cheerleading competitions, teams have 2 1⁄2 minutes to pack in as many high-level stunts and tumbles as possible. Loud dance anthems blare from the speakers as athletes fly through the air.

“It’s not like normal sports where, if you don’t do well the first quarter, you can make it up later in the game,” Katsumi said. “You have one performance, just one shot to make it the best you can. It’s really intense.”

Though cheerleading was sanctioned by the New York State Public High School Athletic Association last year, the sport’s rookie season functioned more as a test run that did not culminate with state championship tournaments.

Finding and training judges, establishing a universal scoring rubric and determining how to break up divisions for the state championship were among many required tasks, said Todd Nelson, associate director for the athletic association.

Now, everything is in place: the statewide rules and regulations, the state championship tournament, the recognition that competitive cheerleaders have sought for years.

“To get to this point where we’re recognized is really something to be proud of,” said Hauppauge’s Laura Candela, president of the Suffolk County Coaches Association.

The inaugural state championship will be held March 5 in Syracuse.

On Long Island — where the talent is exceptional and more than two dozen teams were involved in national competition in Orlando, Florida, last year, Candela said — the state regulations may be a hindrance.

“I’ll go out on a limb and say it: Competitively, this is a step back for Long Island,” said Freeport’s Laurie Kolodny, co-president of the Nassau County Cheerleading Coaches Association.

First, there is an issue with scoring. Before it became a New York-sanctioned varsity sport, cheerleading groups had the autonomy to choose their own scoring methods. On Long Island, a routine’s difficulty factored higher than under state regulations.

“It almost kind of hinders Long Island a little bit,” Candela said of the state scoring formula.

“My team does very elite stunting,” Spallina said. “If we do a skill that’s almost like a college-level skill, some judges may not recognize that skill, and so that affects our score.”

But growing pains were expected in the inaugural season

and nothing can overshadow the impact of being recognized.

“I’m a sports mom,” Kolodny said. “I’ve been a cheerleading coach for 27 years, but I’m a sports mom first. So I’m thrilled that my cheerleaders are going to be recognized as athletes now. Because that’s what they are.”

Cheerleading facts

* Routines last 2 1⁄2 minutes and are judged on difficulty and execution.

* Practice time is regulated by the state, and can last no more than 2 1⁄2 hours.

* Officially a coed sport, Nassau has a coed division, Suffolk doesn’t.

* The inaugural state championship will be held at the SRC Arena and Events Center on Onondaga Community College’s campus in Syracuse on March 5.

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