A bumpy but victorious season for the Rochester cheer team

Mariam Hanna, Co-editor-in-chief

On Friday, Mar. 6, senior and cheer captain Jenna Alsaigh woke up nervous but excited for the day ahead- the day she and the rest of the varsity cheer team would compete at the state championship in Grand Rapids. 

After a season with many highs and lows, the cheer team had qualified to compete at States, where they placed fifth, after getting second place at Districts and fourth place at Regionals. All the girls were beyond thrilled to make it to States since this is what they had worked immensely hard for all season. 

“[When I found out we qualified for States,] I realized that I was finally getting to do something I dreamed to do since middle school,” senior and captain Santina Dedvukaj said. “It was a special feeling that I’ll never forget.”

This was especially special to this year’s team because last year was only one of three times Rochester’s cheer team had not made it to States. The girls used this as motivation to fight hard for their title back.

I always reminded myself in times where I felt like giving up that I didn’t want to feel that defeating emotion again,” Alsaigh said. “That experience pushed me to not let something that can be fixed just slide by.”

It also encouraged the team to pay more attention the smaller parts of their rounds and to perfect slightly mediocre parts. 

After not making it to states, I became a lot more focused on the details,” Dedvukaj said. “This year, I pushed myself a lot to fix all of my flaws and made it so the judges had nothing to score us low on.”

Because of last year’s rocky season, many doubted that Rochester would succeed this year, let alone become OAA league champs and make it to states. Dedvukaj and junior Brooke Anderson cited this as the most rewarding part of their season.

“The first thing that went through my head [when they called our name in the top four at Regionals] was that…we made it,” Anderson said. “We were in the race to win, and we proved the doubters wrong!”

Going into Regionals was scary for the team seeing that the other schools are also known for their cheer programs and that last year Rochester did not make it to States. 

“We have never stayed home from the Finals two years in a row,” Coach Susan Wood explained. “But losing 14 seniors to graduation meant that it might happen. That made it extra scary for our team. We were so excited – and relieved – to be among the top 4 in our Region, and the top 8 D1 schools in the state!”

On Feb. 8, the team competed at an OAA red league meet where they got first place, making them league champs.. This was a major and memorable victory for them. Not only is it objectively a huge accomplishment, but they also were able to prove people’s negative predictions wrong. 

“One memory that stuck with me was winning the third OAA league meet and becoming champs,” Alsaigh said. “We had many struggles at prior competitions, so at this one specifically, we performed as if we had nothing to lose. That’s when as a team, we saw our potential to be great, and we only improved since.”

Of course, a great cheer team is made of great cheerleaders. It is significant that each girl improve her skills personally to ensure the team can fulfill their potential.

“Personally, I became better at focusing on myself sometimes,” Alsaigh said. “In order for a team to get better, each girl needs to focus on their skills individually. As a team, definitely confidence. Majority being new girls to Varsity and only having seven seniors, it was hard at first. As the season progressed, our performances became less timid and more bold.”

For States specifically, Coach Wood decided to move up a sophomore JV cheerleader, Emily Isabell, to varsity because of her high and inverted jumps. She challenged herself to stick her tuck and achieved that goal. 

[I knew] there was a possibility [she would move me up,] but it was surprising because I didn’t think she would actually move anyone up,” Isabell explained. “When I found out, I was excited and stressed because I didn’t want to mess anything up.”

Pulling up underclassmen on sub- varsity teams is something that has been done numerous times in this cheer program’s history. It’s not a surprise seeing that the majority of varsity teams take underclassmen immediately and Rochester is the only division one team that does not.

“It could be argued that the best talent should be on Varsity in the first place, regardless of age and mental readiness,” Coach Wood said. “I know there are often freshmen who could handle it, but in general I’m not in favor of stealing all the talent if I can help it. Sub-varsity teams deserve success, too. Plus, we might need them for only one round, yet if they stayed back they could gain experience in all three rounds.”

States’ environment was intense. The competing teams were truly the best of the best, and the crowd was ginormous. The cheerleaders used this to channel their energy and give it their all instead of allowing the fear to consume them.

“The atmosphere was crazy; every team was focused and ready to perform,” Alsaigh explained. “The crowd was huge, and that just made me more excited.”

The atmosphere is very cutthroat, but all the teams had good sportsmanship,” Dedvukaj added. 

Thankfully, the team had competed at the Delta Plex at prior competitions, so the setting was not totally new to them. 

“Yes, Delta plex is a huge place but we’ve all been there before so it was nothing new,” Anderson said. “The only thing is there was a lot more people but we were more focused on ourselves and our performances than the atmosphere…  I was eager to win with the team and to show people that Rochester’s back in the race.”

This would be the last time the team performed with one another, which was especially bittersweet for the seven graduating seniors, many of whom having cheered with Rochester their entire high school careers. 

“I’m going to miss the bond this program makes with each team,” Alsaigh said. “My teammates are also my best friends, and I cannot thank this program enough for bringing us together.”

At cheer competitions, there are three rounds. Round one is for jumps, round two is for tumbling, and round three is for stunts. The scores at States were very close, often having the top three within a range of two points. At the end of round one, Rochester’s score was 236.9, which was only .8 points away from first place. By the end of round two, they were 1.54 points away with a subtotal of 467.96. They ended up getting 787.26 points- out of a possible 800- and placing fifth.

“The results were something I didn’t want for the younger girls on my team, but at the end of the day I’m still so proud,” Dedvakaj said. “Everyone thought we wouldn’t make it to states and look how far we made it… Rochester Cheer is unlike any sport at RHS and you will never know why until you’re actually a part of it. I will miss my best friends and the amazing coaching staff.”

This year, the eight teams competing were better than ever before. Coach Wood experienced decades of State Finals, but she noted that these teams were exceptional in their talent and choreography. With only a 4.44 difference in points from 1st to 5th place, it is clear that every team truly gave it their all on the mat and all season long.

Going into the State Final, I knew we would need to be perfect to win it all,” Coach Wood said. “But since there didn’t seem to bean obvious standout, I felt we had a chance… Our team should be really proud; they left it all on the mat and did the absolute best they could do. I hope they have no regrets about their season or their final performance – I know I don’t.”

Before the scores and placings were announced at the end of the competition, the girls had a chance to come together and participate in a special tradition one last time.

“One memory I have is before the winner of states was announced, we got together and screamed our team song,” Dedvakaj said. “It’s something I’ll never forget and a bond that’s irreplaceable.”

Although the team wished to place higher like they have in previous years, being 19 time state champions, they were able to look at the bright side and reminisce on favorite memories from the season.

“At first I was bummed to not take the win with the team, but I realized that we accomplished so much over the season,” Anderson said. “We didn’t start with much and ended 5th in the state! After, I was more focused on how I would miss the seniors. These seniors taught me how to work hard and still have fun in the process. Although most of us were full of tears, I think they were more about missing the season as it had just ended.”

Knowing this was her last performance with this team was emotional for Alsaigh. She had put her heart and soul into cheerleading for years and had build an incredible bond with her teammates. 

“Of course all of us did not want that outcome, but it was hard to process that that was our last performance,” Alsaigh said. “This is the closest team I’ve ever been on in my six years of the sport, and it was hard to let the season go.”

The cheerleaders all mentioned that they bonded with this team more than every before and that they will miss that friendship they built. Coach Wood agrees that the girls worked beyond well with one another in both advancing their skills and lifting one another up.

“The thing I’ll miss most about this team is their attitudes,” she said. “Every day they were happy, kind, and eager to work. They had great team chemistry, right from the beginning. Much of that can be credited to this senior group. They knew exactly how to get the best out of each individual. They built solid relationships with each teammate, had respect for the underclassmen, and were truly wonderful leaders.”

Proving Coach Wood’s point, the varsity girls welcomed Isabell on their team openly.

“It was kind of awkward integrating into their bond but everyone was really nice so it wasn’t that bad,” Isabell said. “My favorite part of states was everything because it felt so cool to be with such an amazing team.”

The current juniors on the team and Coach Wood are looking forward to fight to take back their title as State champs next year, and having the experience of competing at the competition this year is a major advantage this season’s team did not have.

“This year’s seniors, and this team, brought us back on track,” Coach Wood said. “With only 7 athletes graduating, we will have a chance to compete next year with more returning girls, and therefore, more experience. I’m hoping that will also lead to having the chance to push our skills to a higher level.”

The Rochester varsity cheerleaders all agree that this season was a memorable one with victories and defeats, but they strengthened their relationship through it and succeeded overall.

“My amazing teammates always kept me grounded,” Alsaigh said. “We always held each other up when we struggled, and that is really important for a team.”