SYRACUSE — Alexa Vega sat on the mat at the SRC Arena and Events Center Saturday, surrounded by cheerleaders from 56 other high schools in the state.
Vega, a Babylon senior, was minutes away from learning her team did not qualify for the finals, but that moment was rewarding enough.
“Honestly, I can’t even be mad,” Vega said. “I’m just so happy we that we even made it here.”
“Here” was New York’s first cheerleading state championship.
Varsity cheerleading was sanctioned by the New York State Public High School Athletic Association as a competitive sport last year, but had all the state rules and regulations implemented for the first time this winter season.
Mt. Sinai, in the Coed division, was the only Long Island school to capture a championship, but Bethpage (No. 2 Division II Large), Rocky Point (No. 3 Division I Small), Sachem East (No. 3 Division I Large), Wantagh (No. 5 Division I Small) and Plainedge (No. 5 Division I Large) all qualified for the finals.
Babylon (No. 8 Division II Small), Clarke (No. 9 Division II Small) and Valley Stream North (No. 11 Coed) missed the cut.
But like Vega, other cheerleaders who did not win state championships appreciated the significance of participating in the event.
“It was amazing making history,” said Wantagh junior Bridget Connolly, whose team led off the preliminaries. “I just think it was an opportunity that most people don’t get to have. It was really just remarkable.”
Todd Nelson, NYSPHSAA’s assistant director, sent an inspiring message to the teams before announcing the finalists. Vega, Connolly and the other cheerleaders sat and listened as Nelson reminded them that they had survived the process of whittling 534 teams to 57 to compete for a state title, one just as official as soccer, baseball and the other sports their schools offer.
“I was thinking, ‘Wow, this is awesome,’ ” Plainedge senior Stephanie Yarusso said. “It was such an amazing feeling.”
“It’s actually hard to wrap your mind around something like that,” Bethpage senior Danielle Cuozzo said.
Part of the novel experience involved an exposure to cheerleading styles that teams on Long Island do not practice.
“It’s definitely a lot different,” Wantagh senior Sammi Paul said. “The way people cheer over here is way different from we do. To compete against them is kind of weird because they’re so different.”
For some, that was both a cause for concern and a reason to be excited.
“It’s amazing because we didn’t know what to expect,” Wantagh senior Allyson Ottomano said. “We came here and were obviously nervous, but we were confident and we did what we could.”
For Vega, it was a special, eye-opening experience.
“I didn’t really think there was anything outside of Babylon cheer, or Long Island cheer,” Vega said. “Some girls didn’t even have cheers. Our routine is always with a cheer in it. That’s just all we see, so coming out here to see different things, it shows how big cheer is.”
And with the first state tournament in the books, it could get bigger.a