The East Meadow High School Jets cheerleading team traveled to Orlando, Florida on Feb. 7 and all 27 athletes showed off blue, white and gold at the national competition at ESPN Wide World of Sports in Disney World. With 28 teams fighting for the same spot, the East Meadow Jets once again came out with a fight full of spirit and pride and placed fourteenth in the nation.
The 2019 Varsity cheerleading team consists of a large number of underclassmen with one eighth grader, six freshmen, and seven sophomores. For a majority of these athletes, this was their first experience on a varsity team. They had to learn several new skills in order to handle the pressure of performing on much larger scale than what they were used to.
“Another big goal we had was to make it to the final round at nationals this year,” said Coach Stephanie Annunziata. “After the semi-finals round we sat in a big arena while each advancing team was announced one by one. Finally, after what felt like forever, our name was called. It was the most amazing feeling. We all jumped up and down, some cried tears of joy, including me!”
The team had only advanced to finals once before in 2017, so advancing to finals this year was a remarkable feeling for them, Annunziata said. “This team has impacted my pride. I have been proud of my accomplishments in the past, but the amount of pride I have for this team is immense. They amaze me every day at the things that they are capable of. They are such strong kids, with such drive and determination, and I feel so proud of them every day. It is nice to be part of something that is so great. And to be able to say that you played a role in making it so great, is the most amazing feeling in the world.”
This was Annunziata’s first season as head coach at East Meadow. She began as a volunteer coach for both Junior Varsity and Varsity teams in 2011, and then coached JV with her sister in 2013. She was then offered the role of head coach at Woodland Middle School, where she coached for five years until November when her current role opened up and she jumped at the opportunity.
With any team that faces competition, there will always be obstacles and at nationals, the Jets faced their fair share.
“We had six athletes who had the flu, three had bronchitis, three with sinus infections and one with pneumonia all the week before leaving for nationals,” Annunziata said. “That’s half our team. It came in waves, and one girl actually had to be taken to urgent care while we were down in Disney. Thankfully it was after we had competed. It was not easy for the girls to perform an elite routine while feeling so crumby.”
This was just the beginning of a great season; the girls were county champions and went on to states, held in Rochester, New York. While they placed last at states, they took away a lot from the experience.
“I am glad I got to spend my last weekend cheering with the best group of girls anyone could imagine,” said Senior Hannah Cornfield. The first-place team in the Jets division was Sachem North, which Cornfield said “has an amazing program and definitely deserved to win and all the other teams in our division were outstanding.”
Annunziata was proud of the hard work the girls have shown throughout the season, she said. “I want the girls to develop a sense of pride for themselves and for their community in representing East Meadow at the national competition level,” she added. “They should know that their determination has brought them this far, and that if they continue to persevere, this program can skyrocket beyond their expectations!”
“Cheerleading has changed me as a person,” said Lexi Dolan, also a senior. “You learn lessons on the mat that can also apply to your life off the mat. I think the biggest thing I will take away from this sport is how to persevere.”
Dolan tore ligaments in her ankle at the start of her season, which forced her to sit out for three months. She said, “It was one of the hardest things to watch, but you learn that you can’t control everything in life, and when obstacles are thrown at you the only thing you can do is make the best of it.” Dolan made sure that she worked ten times harder to get stronger.
If there were one thing that Dolan has learned throughout her years of cheerleading, she said it would be to never give up. She leaves aspiring cheerleaders with this message, “Set a goal, fight and work hard and I promise everything will all work out in the end. Nothing is impossible.”
Head coach Annunziata added to “trust the process and by that I mean, you must learn the basics, and put in the time and effort, if you want to see results. If you are hoping to be a varsity cheerleader one day, you should know that the only way to get there is to put the work in.”
There are several aspects of cheer that many people would find too difficult or demanding, the coach added. “Get into a gym, start from the bottom, and build your way up,” she said. “Learn the skills and know that you will get knocked down. It’s not about how hard you fall, but more about how strong you stand back up. That’s what cheer is all about!”