For 2 1⁄2 pressure-packed minutes, the cheerleaders from Smithtown East masked all the emotion boiling underneath with their ear-to-ear smiles.
But as soon as the music stopped and their poses gave way to hugs and tears, it became evident: the unrelenting intensity of competitive cheerleading, the hundreds of hours of practice that went into this, the dedication and focus it takes to perfect a routine.
After a week that included five grueling practices, Smithtown East scored a 103.3 to win the 12-team competition in Small Varsity Division I at the Freeport Devil Cheerleading Invitational Sunday.
Wantagh, with a 100.15, turned in an impressive performance to take second. Hauppauge (96.05), host Freeport (93.1) and Baldwin (80.25) also fared well.
“Our practices were so tough,” senior Ashley Canale said. “There was a lot of frustration. We were never able to hit a perfect routine. Not until today.”
By having their resolve tested, the Bulls developed an invaluable trust in one another, a major factor in cheerleading. “If you don’t trust each other,” Canale said, “you’re not getting anywhere.”
For the Bulls, it goes beyond the mat.
“We’re with each other 24/7,” senior Nicolina Maio said. “This is my favorite group of people in the world.”
The first and last 50 seconds of each team’s routine is similar: hit songs are spliced together into a dance anthem that blares over the loudspeakers, and it’s equal parts gymnastics and dance as the cheerleaders wow the crowd. In between, it’s 50 seconds of the cheerleaders providing their own soundtrack with chants, cheers and sign waving.
“B! U! L! L! S! Run! With the Bulls!” boomed as Smithtown East dazzled its spectators.
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. All the demands of the sport were encapsulated in the performance of Freeport’s Deanna Carroll.
An injury-riddled Freeport squad had just nailed its routine. “When they perform like they did, it takes your breath away,” coach Laurie Kolodny said.
Carroll entered the event with a back injury that limited her prep work. “I was dealing with a lot of pain during the routine,” she said. But onlookers had no idea from watching her perform.
“When I go on the mat,” Carroll said, “it all just goes away.”
Then the routine ended. The music stopped. Freeport’s gymnasium roared, and Carroll was blitzed with emotion. She embraced assistant coach Cheryl Gayle, who carried her off the mat.
“It hit me all at once,” Carroll said.
A deep breath, a wipe of her face, and Carroll had regained her composure. Her first move from there? Nudging Gayle for her iPhone so she could watch a video of the routine they had just nailed.
“Because this was great, but we can still get better,” Carroll said. “We’re not stopping here.”
Beyond the pom-poms and smiles, that mentality is the hallmark of the sport: Blood, sweat and cheers.