The Massapequa challenger cheerleading team, open to students of all abilties, performed at a varsity cheer competition at Massapequa High School, NewsdayTV Carissa Kellman reports. Credit: Howard Simmons

The cheerleading competition at Massapequa High School on Jan. 21 started like any other, with fans cheering on each team as they vied for a title.

But it ended with a performance that generated more applause than the rest.

A  co-ed squad of students with big bows and even bigger personalities make up the Massapequa challenger cheerleading team, the first and only team of its kind on Long Island. It was their performance that capped the day at Massapequa.

The challenger cheer program started in 2016 and is comprised of students from Berner Middle School and Massapequa High School with intellectual and physical disabilities. The two teams practice separately during the week and warm-up together before they perform as one cohesive squad at events.

“It’s an opportunity for disabilities to fade and abilities to shine,” said Kathleen Wegener, a LifeSkills teacher at Massapequa High School and the high school challenger cheerleading coach. “Not everyone is going to make a varsity team, but everyone should get the chance to do what they love.”

The squad cheers in the fall and winter at Massapequa challenger sporting events, such as soccer and basketball games. For the first time this school year, they had the chance to bring their pep to the varsity mat as an exhibition team, in which they do not receive scores or placements in the competition.

On Jan. 7, the challenger team put on its first performance at Wantagh High School in a gym packed with fans and athletes from varsity and junior varsity cheerleading teams.

“As soon I heard that the team wanted to perform at the varsity meet, I knew it would be amazing,” said Jennifer Keane, the athletic director at Wantagh High School and Nassau competitive cheerleading coordinator. “I suggested that they close the session because they would perform in front of the largest possible crowd.”

With the help of student volunteers and teaching assistants from the high school and middle school, the squad learned a new routine over the course of a few weeks.

“They were very nervous before they went on,” Wegener said. “But we talk about how it’s good to be nervous and once they got out there, they just couldn’t stop smiling.”

When the team took to the mat, it didn’t take long for the crowd and judges to feel the squad’s infectious energy and clap to the beat. The performance was sealed with a standing ovation.

“It was a special day for the students and that prompted us to look for another opportunity," said Ed Hoffman, the athletic coordinator at Berner Middle School and Nassau challenger league coordinator. “It just so [happened that] we were hosting a home cheerleading event [at Massapequa] two weeks after that event at Wantagh. Everyone was on board and we scheduled it right away.”

“They just love putting that uniform on and having a crowd cheer for them,” said Lauren Dean, the Berner Middle School challenger cheerleading coach. “It means everything to them to be part of the team. I have some of our students reach out to their old teachers [and] they ask them to come. They have their whole families come [too]. It’s really special.”

Parents of the cheerleaders were especially looking forward to the team’s second performance. Laura Maroldo is the mother of 14-year-old Jada, who was born with an intellectual disability. She remembers her daughter’s emotions following the Wantagh competition.

“The first time she performed, she came off the mat with tears down her face and I asked what was wrong,” Laura Maroldo said. “’Happy tears, she told me. Just happy tears.' ”

Jada is a member of the Massapequa challenger soccer and basketball teams, and she joined the cheer squad in October. Laura says she has already seen how being a member of  this squad has helped her daughter.

“It has absolutely made her build more confidence and relationships with new classmates,” Laura said. “The opportunity for her to be proud of herself is just wonderful.”

“It has been life changing. I’m so grateful for the chances Jada and the other students can have through this team and with the support of the community.”

As fellow athletes watched and rooted on the team during their performances, it was clear that the Massapequa challenger cheer team is about much more than cheerleading.

“The challenger team performs right before results are announced," Wegener said, "and it’s a nice way to remind the athletes that there’s more to the sport than winning a title."

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