The West Orange Wildcats youth cheer program recently took home multiple national titles at the Pop Warner National Cheer & Dance Championship in Orlando.
Some championships just mean more than others.
The West Orange Wildcats youth cheer program was about to understand the meaning of that as they sat and waited in the Orange Convention Center.
After the scores had been tallied, both the Wildcats Jr. Pee Wee and Wildcats varsity teams were waiting to hear their names called during the Pop Warner National Cheer & Dance Championship.
Then, the moments for both teams happened, and the results were big: The Wildcats Jr. Pee Wee team picked up the title in the YCADA PW 1 Non-Mount Cheer Junior Pee Wee Small Division, while The Wildcats Varsity team picked up the title in the YCADA PW 1 Non-Mount Cheer Varsity Small Division.
“I’ve taken teams to nationals, and it’s rewarding every season, but I think this year in particular it just felt a little different because of how much you went through,” said Nicole Capozzi, head coach of the Pee Wee team. “Everyone kind of dealt with the pandemic in a different way. … But for us, kind of getting to make a lot of history for our town and for the girls to be exposed to something this big at such a young age was so unforgettable.”
This year’s national competition — which took place from Dec. 5 to 7 — was different than previous years. A coach could take only two girls in to listen for the final results, said varsity coach LuAnn Goodell. Regardless of the limitations, it didn’t take away from the happiness the trophy brought her and her squad.
“Of course, when we did come out, to see the parents and the other girls’ reactions was priceless — I was crying,” Goodell said. “They were all very excited, and (it was) very well-deserved. I had a very good group of kids.”
A SEASON OF CHANGE
The road to nationals was about as strange as you would expect.
The season normally would start Aug. 1, but the coaches with the Wildcats program waited in uncertainty for nearly a month. When the season began, there were the usual guidelines put into place, but it was the elimination of stunting that really made things challenging, said Chaelynn McCullough, an assistant on the Pee Wee team.
“There were a lot of complications at the beginning, because when you think of cheerleading, you know of stunting and tumbling — we had to figure out how to make a routine with no stunts, because with city regulations we really couldn’t do hands-on,” McCullough said. “No one has heard of a non-stunting cheer team.”
Along with the technical adjustments, all practices also had to be held outside — a challenge due to Florida’s wild weather. The masks also were tiring for the younger girls who were on the Pee Wee team, which comprises children ages 8 through 11.
But the older girls — ages 12 to 16 — handled them in a surprisingly nonchalant way.
“They all adapted really, really well to it,” Goodell said. “Actually, I had girls who, when it came to competition time and they took the mat, they really wanted to wear their masks but knew their voices — with only five girls —wouldn’t carry. But they adapted really well — probably better than me, and I’ve been wearing my mask since this thing started.”
GOING ALL OUT
As the shortened season progressed, the girls got more comfortable with the restrictions, and soon, they burned through the Mid-Florida competition before winning hardware at regionals. There, the Pee Wee team took second in non-mount and first in cheer, while the varsity girls took first in non-mount.
In Capozzi’s eyes, getting first in cheer while being handed a decent second-place finish was a bit of a wake-up call for her girls.
“They still came in second, but it motivated them, and it kind of lit that match of, ‘Hey, I want to do better,’ and then also rewarded them with the huge gap in scores for dance — it really proved that all of their efforts were being noticed,” Capozzi said. “I think regionals was a great turning point for our season.”
Although the season is now over and Capozzi, Goodell and McCullough have time to reflect on this weird and successful season, the memories they have will last a good, long while, Goodell said.
“They were awesome,” Goodell said. “It was an awesome year even though it was short football-wise. I love the girls — they did an awesome job.”