After facing the reality of a season that never came to be, the Riverhead girls cheerleading team finally made its return to the mat in late 2021.
And in grand fashion, nonetheless.
A year following the lost season due to the school’s budget failure, the Blue Waves have taken full advantage of the opportunity they desperately hoped for. Through their stellar performance in this comeback season, they’ve earned themselves a trip all the way to the 2022 National High School Cheerleading Championship at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando from Feb 11-13.
"It just made us want to come back and work 10 times harder," senior Reanna Menotti said. "And show that we’re here to do amazing things."
When Riverhead did finally return to the mat after a year hiatus, Menotti conceded that the 14-member team — composed of 11 newcomers — was humbled to quickly learn that it had quite a long way to go to recapture its previous form, which included a trip to the 2020 championship, where they finished in the top 20.
"So when we started, it was very hard," Menotti said. "We were not in the same spot as most teams on Long Island. We had to put a lot of work into it to get to the place that we’re in now. At first, it was just weird because everyone was learning different spots and we were like, ‘Oh no, what is this season going to be like?’"
One of the several newcomers who had never previously competed at the varsity level, junior Lauren Melvin, also acknowledged the early rust and growing pains, and how the Blue Waves powered through them with remarkable precision.
"It was really hard at first," Melvin said. "We knew that would be the case after having a year off. But once we really got into it, we pushed ourselves even harder and it’s all come together so well."
With a significant lack of experience throughout the roster, Riverhead coach Stephanie Piraino also entered the season generally concerned for her team’s overall welfare, both physically and mentally.
"I always believe in the kids, but honestly I was a bit sad for them," Piraino said. "I wondered how they would physically be able to do this. Because it’s one thing for me to coach them and tell them what they have to do.
"Knowing that 90% of the team has never worked together, never stunted together. We have two senior fliers who had never done varsity level stunts. I thought that it would be a miracle if we could put this together, but they’ve all done such a great job."
Despite the extended layoff and the roster’s overwhelming turnover, Riverhead realized that a high level of success could not only become attainable, but that it could earn enough to take the national stage.
"We really became a team and realized that we were going to be amazing," Menotti said.
Once postseason competition rolled around during Riverhead’s absence, the team’s frustration mounted to an all-new level. Piraino, however, continued to reassure them that once the season passed, their next opportunity would be right on the horizon.
"It was so disheartening to the kids as they watched the other teams on Long Island compete for counties," Piraino said. "They couldn’t believe that it was possible for them not to go since they normally compete.
"We touched base and spoke over this extended time, but I told them ‘Guys, you’re going to get your moment and we’re going to get this back and be able to do it.’"
Even through all the tremendous success the Blue Waves have encountered this season, the prevailing sentiment continues to center around their difficult period of inactivity and uncertainty and how it’s helped shape their journey.
"We had so many ups and downs, but we pushed through them and we’re just beyond thankful for being able to have a season this year," Menotti said.
With the national championships only about a month away, the Blue Waves have turned their previously drawn-out adversity into a driving force on their quest of going from absent one year to potentially the best in the country the next.
"In a way, having a year off has helped in setting us up for a comeback," Melvin said. "We want to show up and say, ‘We are Riverhead, and even after having a year off we haven’t missed anything.’ We want to show people that. We’re still coming back strong and we’ll be game-face ready."