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A return to the mat features virtual competitions for varsity cheerleaders

Cheerleaders can be of good cheer these days. They finally have something to cheer about: a season.

That appeared less and less likely as the weeks of the high school winter sports season whittled away. And then came the salvation high-risk winter sports such as competitive cheerleading could barely have still hoped for with the authorization to proceed, first from New York State and then Suffolk County.

Cheerleading has a compressed season that will run to Feb. 27. Practices began this week.

Shoreham-Wading River’s Grace McMillan, who captains the Wildcats along with fellow seniors Brooke Hackal and Caitlin Thrash, spoke about how nice it will be to have a sense of closure. “If we didn’t have this year, it would have felt incomplete,” said McMillan.

Like just about everything else during the coronavirus pandemic, this cheerleading season is, uh, different. In addition to weekly testing for COVID-19 and wearing face masks, consider the competitions themselves. As outlined on the Suffolk County Cheerleading Coaches Association’s website, teams will participate in three virtual competitions. Each team is to videotape its routine and upload the video for review and scoring by the judges.

This brief cheerleading season will see no county, Long Island or state championships — and no spectators.

In its outline of the strange season, the SCCCA emphasized: “This is not about the level of competition; it is not about throwing the most elite stunts in the air. It is about being together with your athletes. It is about giving your seniors one last season. One more moment on the mat!”

That idea is cherished by cheerleaders such as Hackal.

“It means everything,” she said of the opportunity to represent her school once again. “We feel so comfortable. It’s where we love to be, what we love to do. It feels right. I couldn’t picture my senior year without cheer.”

As unexpected as this season was, Southold coach Alissa Basso said she “was so excited because I know how much these girls love this sport and they love their team. So, even though it’s going to be a quick four weeks and things look different, I’m happy that they at least get to get together as a team and do what they love.”

Asked what is the biggest challenge she faces, SWR coach Brie Carlen answered, “I would say just trying to basically cram six months of practice into a week and half.”

Carlen said she spent this past weekend with pen and paper choreographing routines. She anticipated “disaster” when she entered the gym for the team’s first practice Wednesday (the team’s first gathering in 11 months), but was pleasantly surprised by a “great practice.” Eleven of SWR’s 15 cheerleaders have prior varsity experience and a number of them have been training at an outside gym on their own.

“I think leading into these next four weeks, they’re going to do great things in a short amount of time,” Carlen said. “We’re just doing everything that we can to try make them have the most memorable season possible under the circumstances.”

Southold’s first practice was Thursday. Basso, who has only one senior on her team (Samantha Tondo), figures that seven of her nine cheerleaders have been training with North Fork Cheer, a club team based in Cutchogue.

“I was really impressed with the girls,” Basso said. “They came with their ‘A’ game. They were ready to go, and we were ready to jump right into stunts that we were working on last year.”

Perhaps the most noticeable difference in this season will be the absence of fans and the energy the cheerleaders draw from them. “I think that this year we’ll have to motivate [ourselves] more than ever,” said Southold sophomore Maya Reilly.

Performing the 2-minute, 30-second routines with a mask on can be draining.

“I feel like we need a lot of endurance to begin with to be able to get through a routine because during our routine we also have to yell as loud as you can when we’re cheering,” said Southold junior Melissa Grzegorczyk.

McMillan said: “It will definitely be different, not something we’re used to, but our team has had to deal with so much adversity in the past, so I don’t think it’s something we can’t handle.”

Both SWR and Southold plan on performing their first competition routines on Friday.

Basso said, “I think this is something that they’ll be able to look back on and say, ‘Oh wow, we were able to do that during the pandemic and that was pretty cool.’ ”

Carlen understands that great memories can come out of difficult times. Those memories may include team pasta parties via Zoom the night before competitions. “We’re still going to do our team-bonders any way we can,” she said. “It’s going to be different, but it’s going to be a great season. It already is, honestly.”

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