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Behind the Scenes with Midd South Cheer

Danny Decrescenzo, Sports Editor

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Friday Nights at the Swamp for the Middletown South community have always been about one, primordial thing: Rooting on the boys in blue.

While that is all well and good, there’s another Friday-night staple that deserves just as much attention: The Midd South Cheerleaders. They’re an integral part of Friday night games, providing the energy and bravado necessary to excitingly support the Eagles on the field. They are a halftime fixture as well, performing their religiously excellent routine at every home game. Even their presence down on the track is a clockwork-esque reassurance, as something would be amiss if they were not there.

I went off to report on a cheer practice because I wanted to pay the cheerleaders their long overdue heed. In doing so, I developed an even greater appreciation for their Friday Night performance than I previously had. What did I learn that day? What goes on behind the scenes?

The warm-up

Entering the gym that muggy, August morning, I had no idea what to expect. I’ve seen high-level cheer only on a surface level; never have I witnessed the inner workings of a cheer team. I greeted the cheerleaders who arrived early and, with my notebook, began setting up my notes. JV and varsity started in the same gym, talking amongst themselves. Head Coach Cristina Fox and her assistant coaches Sarah Derasmo and Danielle Fehlhaber soon arrived, and practice proper began within a few minutes.

Perched atop the bleachers, I watched them stretch out as a group. It was great to see that they took the stretches seriously. Once they finished, they rolled out the mats and brought out a speaker. JV went to the other gym to work with Fehlhaber, and the captains assumed control over varsity practice. Senior captains Jamie Bonfiglio, Ava Lucchese, Bella Bettigole, Haley Murphy, and Riley Sapp were loud, quick, and deliberate in their orders, immediately starting work on the pyramid segment of their routine. They divided up the remaining cheerleaders into those doing the pyramids and those tumbling, and instructed them to synchronize their movements first to Fox’s count, then to the music.

This is where the concept of rhythm kept recurring in my notes. Cheer practice is, at its core, about developing a rhythm to match the music, making sure every move is in step. If even one cheerleader is out of rhythm, then the routine is ruined. At first, the cheerleaders were in sync but failed to achieve balance atop the pyramid. The captains, particularly Jaime, were very involved with making sure the positioning and timing would be on-point. Fox was hands-off at this point; the captains had fully taken charge and initiative. Eventually, they did manage to consistently get the girls up and locking arms atop the pyramid. However, they were unable to stay up there long, and it was clear that they needed to continue to work on balance. Wisely, Fox decided to move on. There was no doubt that this was something they could master in another practice or two.

It’s showtime

After a quick water break, the cheerleaders spread out to practice the elements of their routine that they had established at the point. As a big fan of their routines, I was excited to see what this year’s routine would look like. They first focused on their opening, which was a lot of stationary moves. I could tell they had this part, and this is where another theme emerged in my notes: attention to detail. They did their routine with no i’s undotted or t’s uncrossed. Their moves were not done sloppily; rather, they were done with vigor. After the opening, they went through their entire show, which was certainly a work in progress. Their opening was solid, and their secondary phase, focused on dance-elements, was also in decent shape. They skipped over the pyramid section and the second-to-last phase, before ending on their nice closing. Because it was unfinished, I was initially unsure how to process the entire routine, but Fox helped me out by telling her cheerleaders that it was “A little bit messy.” She ordered them to run through it again, and I thought it looked more polished, especially near the end.

After this run, Fox once again provided her critiques. From what I could tell about her feedback, she was focusing on the details that would make the routine flawless. They were ironing out the small mistakes and even making small, on-the-spot changes, like adding a wave to the crowd at the beginning of the second phase. She got on them about talking to each other while they were walking to a new location, which Fox was adamant was absolutely unacceptable–total discipline was required. She instructed them to maintain a strictly vertical posture and to keep their hair from falling down. Then, she simply made them go through the routine again. And again. And again. I got the impression that this repetition, and her constructive critiques after each run, was the main method of installing discipline. Fox–and the girls themselves–wanted the routine to be perfect.

Squad work

Once they took another well-deserved break, Fox instructed her cheerleaders to get in smaller groups of 4 or 5. It was “group work,” and I was unsure of what it entailed. When I saw the first group venture onto the gym floor, and heard the routine music start, it hit me: They were running through the routine in smaller units. The girls in the groups were of different varieties; some were flyers, others tumblers, etc. This meant that they could never rely on those next to each other, upping the ante. The spotlight was on them as individuals. Not only was this a great way of assessing how way each cheerleader knew her own part, it also demonstrated the last hallmark of my notes: unity. The groups demonstrated a discipline towards their common goal and every other cheerleader was in high spirits rooting on their teammates, hollering when witnessing them fly though the routine. It created a real morale factor to practice that comes not just through doing things right, but by overwhelming peer approval. Every group succeeded in this trial, and everyone received a ton of fanfare. I cannot stress enough the effectiveness of this practice. They ran through the routine one more time, and it looked its best yet.

Fox then told them to work on specific cheers to perform during the game. In smaller groups, the cheerleaders were rampant and efficient in their task, running through every cheer they had within 15 minutes. Tumbles, stunts, mini-routines; they all were done efficiently. The cheerleaders were very focused on the task at hand; if they made a mistake or forgot something, they made the effort to rectify it. To end practice, Fox called JV and varsity together to go over upcoming events. In a matter of minutes, they were dismissed, and practice was over.

At the end of the day

So, what did I learn? South’s cheerleaders are very disciplined. And our coaches are very dedicated. They don’t stop working on something until they either do it correctly or make significant progress in doing it correctly. They are very supportive of each other; the best way I can describe it is to imagine a bunch of sisters working on cheerleading, with the captains being the encouraging but authoritative older sisters. The cheerleaders themselves are the heart and soul of the team. The importance of Friday nights to the Middletown South community seems to loom over practice, and it just pushes everybody just a little bit harder. It’s about time South’s cheerleaders get credit for the role they play.

And that pyramid? Not surprisingly, they got it down.

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