The countdown had begun: 11th place, 10th place, ninth, and all the way down. When second place was announced and the cheerleaders from Sachem East learned they were not the runner-up, the ensuing release of energy and emotion shook the arena.
“Like a volcano erupting,” coach Christina Lotito said.
Reigning national high school cheerleading champ Hunterdon Central (Flemington, N.J.) heard its name called in second with a score of 90.70, igniting the electric Sachem East reaction that made the first-place announcement nearly inaudible.
The Flaming Arrows, with their score of 91.20, won the Large Varsity Division I title at Disney World’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando on Feb. 7. There were 35 teams in the field.
“It was unreal,” Kaitlynn Keller said. “An amazing feeling, especially as a senior.”
The team landed at MacArthur airport at 10:40 a.m. Tuesday, and was greeted with red-and-gold balloons, 50 or so screaming fans, and a 10-foot banner that read, “Congratulations S.E.V.C. National Champions!!!” One fan brought speakers to provide the soundtrack: Queen’s “We Are the Champions.”
“We definitely weren’t expecting this,” senior Alexis Zanghi said with a smile.
Humility is to be expected of the cheerleaders from Sachem East. Their top goal was to win at nationals, but anything better than a fifth-place finish — the previous team-best set in 2010 — would be plenty to make them proud.
“After they announced fifth, the girls turned to each other and they said, ‘Oh my god, we just made history.’ So that right there was a huge moment,” coach Melissa Steigele said.
Added coach Taylor Grimm: “They knew that they were higher than that, but the fact that they stopped at that moment to realize they just made history for the program, that was just really cool for us to see as coaches. They were proud from that moment on.”
In the preliminary round on Feb. 6, the Sachem East cheerleaders turned in an admittedly subpar performance, scoring an 85.30. They didn’t earn the automatic bid that would have allowed them to advance straight into the finals, and instead had to compete Sunday morning in the semifinal round.
“Coming off the mat, a lot of us were really disappointed,” Keller said. “But in the long run, it was a blessing in disguise. It was better that our team got to compete one more time in that huge arena because we had another fall at semis, and then we knew for finals that there could be no falls.”
After posting an 85.75 in the semifinal round, Sachem East saved its best for the final.
“It was flawless. They literally put on the performance of their lives at finals,” Lotito said. “I don’t think there was a thing wrong with it. Zero deductions, which was gigantic. That pushed us over.”
With everything riding on their final 2 minute, 30 second performance, the Sachem East cheerleaders combated the pressure by confronting it head-on.
“We didn’t let anything get in our way,” senior Sabrina Lechnyk said. “We were like, ‘We want this that bad, we’ll fight through any pressure.’ We all trusted each other, and we won together . . . As a family.”
Long Island’s top-20 finishers at the National High School Cheerleading Championships:
Large Varsity Division II
Mount Sinai: 1st
West Babylon: 4th
Seaford : 5th
Large Varsity Division I
Sachem East: 1st
Medium Varsity Division II
Rocky Point: 2nd
Small Varsity Division II
Hauppauge: 4th (tie)
Small Varsity Division I
North Babylon: 10th
Medium Varsity Division I
Super Varsity Division I
Ward Melville: 8th