Entering the season, the Mount Sinai roster featured 25 cheerleaders with extraordinary talent, but whose experience level, age and exposure varied.
Some had won on the brightest stage, and others never had been to Orlando for the sport’s biggest tournament. In a prime example, the Mustangs put two seniors, a sophomore and an eighth-grader in the same hotel room for the National High School Cheerleading Championships last weekend.
“It was fun because I don’t get to see these girls in school every day,” said Caitlyn Ebbecke, an eighth-grader at Mount Sinai Middle School.
How did this eclectic bunch come to fully trust one another — in a sport in which this is the single biggest factor for success — and win a title at Disney World’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex on Feb. 7?
Fifth-year coach Samantha Melella employed a wide array of team-building tactics in the beginning of the season, from sleepovers and pasta parties to go-carting.
“When you’re trying to put any team together and you’re mixing 10 seniors with an eighth-grader and a few sophomores, the biggest thing is trying to get them comfortable with each other, getting them to bond,” Melella said. “I always tried to have them stay loose and just enjoy each other, because I think when you get close and become a family, it’s easier to accomplish things together.”
The ace up Melella’s sleeve was the video footage she had of her 2014 team that won a national title, which she showed to this year’s squad a few times before practice. The Mustangs saw the reaction, the pure elation that came along with being crowned champions. And just like that, 25 individuals were united by one common goal.
“We kept watching the awards ceremony because for the new kids to see your faces when you actually find out you got first, it’s incredible,” said senior Taylor Cauchi-Gerace, who was a member of the 2014 team. “And for those that had already experienced winning, we wanted that feeling again.”
Mount Sinai won the 20-team event in Large Varsity Division II with a score of 87.8, providing Melella with new video to motivate next year’s team.
“There’s so many versions of the video that a bunch of our parents took,” senior Lia Maniaci said with a laugh. “There’s a video from the front, from the side, and you see us smacking the floor, screaming, tackling each other to the ground, literally hysterically crying from being so happy.”
Eight players from this year’s team were on the 2014 national winner.
“When you’ve already won and you know what that feeling is,” Cauchi-Gerace said, “you want to push everyone to work harder so that you can do it again.”
By the time the team performed in Orlando, even Ebbecke exuded the swagger of a veteran.
“I’m the youngest one on the team and I’m shy, but the girls really broke me out of my shell,” Ebbecke said. “I just got really close with some of the seniors and upperclassmen . . . with everyone, actually. I wouldn’t want to win this with any other team.”