By Rich Fisher | Correspondent
The St. John Vianney varsity cheerleading team is a national champion once again because it had talent, toughness, character and, perhaps most importantly, faith.
“When it comes to cheering, faith is one of the factors that brings our team closer together,” said captain Eryn Cooper, the team’s lone four-year performer. “Praying before every practice and every competition performance, our faith is one thing that we all have in common, no matter how different we all are.”
It was that faith that helped the Lady Lancers rally to win their second National Cheerleading Association championship in three years, fourth overall. SJV claimed the NCA’s Advanced Large Varsity Division in Dallas over the weekend of Jan. 27-28.
After the first day of competition, the Lancers trailed Waukee (Iowa) High School by less than a point and put forth a dynamic performance on Day 2 to win the title. Coach Jayne Shalkowski felt that strength of the body and soul played a big part in the comeback.
“We work once a week with our strength trainer in the weight room before practice, and that gives us increased strength as well as endurance,” Shalkowski said. “With the incorporation of faith, their mental capacity has become very strong. They’re able to deal with a bad thing and are able to come back from second place to first. They use faith to strengthen their inner core.”
Shalkowski attended St. Matthew Grammar School in Edison and St Pius X High School in Piscataway, and put her daughter Staci – who handles the Lancers choreography – through Catholic school as well. Shalkowski’s only teaching school has been at the Holmdel high school.
“Obviously I believe in my faith,” said Shalkowski, a member of St. Catharine Parish, Holmdel. “We pray before everything we do. We pray at every practice, we pray at every competition. Not for anything [like victory], but just for God to guide us, keep us safe and to have a good performance.”
The Lancers actions speak loudly about their faith. The cheer team is a member of the Catholic Athletes for Christ, and members visit the local veterans home and do breast cancer awareness fundraising as some of their many activities.
“Cheerleading is a sport, but it’s a bigger and better thing because we’re out in front of the crowd and we can do so much more than just perform,” Shalkowski said. “We can make a difference.”
They can also win championships, as they have proven time again.
St. John Vianney won the Open National championship for two straight years when it was held in Kentucky, then won it the first year in Dallas in 2016.
Last year, shortly before the competition, Shalkowski was informed there were no other teams in the Advanced Large Varsity Division. St. John Vianney chose to compete in the Open Division, which features teams with high school and middle school cheerleaders, as opposed to just high school. The younger, smaller girls provide a big advantage with the teams’ fliers, which SJV did not have. Nonetheless, the Holmdel school finished third and showed well.
“Last year, it was disappointing coming home without a huge first place trophy as we had the year before,” said Cooper, an Old Bridge resident who belongs to Most Holy Redeemer Parish, Old Bridge. “Our team took the loss as more of a wake-up call than a disappointment. We realized that we’re not always going to win everything. The best thing we could do was to let the loss motivate us to work even harder toward our goals.”
The Large Varsity Division once again had a big enough group to provide competition, and Shalkowski said “they came out with a vengeance.” Despite a strong first-day effort, there had to be some necessary tweaks made in order to overtake Waukee.
“We heard that we were only behind the first place team by three-tenths of a point,” Cooper said. “Our coaches read the critiques the judges gave us, and we knew exactly what we needed to fix in order to score high the next day. I remember Coach Staci telling us that if we made the judges’ corrections, we could literally take this thing home. I got chills when she said that, and in that moment going forward, the team was ready to perform a winning routine the next day.”
Staci Shalkowski made the necessary adjustments Saturday night. The team worked on them Sunday morning, attended Mass, went to lunch, did some more work and “went out and killed it,” according to Jayne Shalkowski. “When they say the first word, as a coach you can feel how the routine is going to be, and the first word sent chills. Staci and I looked at each other and said ‘OK, they’re on.’”
Cooper said the team could sense the same thing.
“Stepping onto the mat and yelling that first word as loud as we could, the whole arena grew silent,” she said. “Our voices forced people to stop and pay attention to us. In that moment, we knew we were going to give the crowd and judges the show they’ve all been waiting for.”
Winning as a Team
When it was over and the scores were announced, the Shalkowski girls embraced each other and began crying. They were told by a tournament staff member that they were more fun to watch than the competitors.
“It was surreal,” Shalkowski said. “Coming back to win was one of the greatest feelings. I think coming from behind is better than being in front.”
Cooper agreed. While she will never forget the feeling of winning nationals for the first time, she said this one may be more special.
“Coming back to Dallas after a loss against two teams and winning against four tough teams this year was almost surreal,” she said. “Only seven of us on the team had felt what it was like to win in 2016, so the rest of the captains and I were determined to make sure all 29 of our teammates got to experience that feeling this year.”
Cooper’s fellow captains were seniors Ariel Broderick, Skylar Espinos and Alyssa Cignetti. Other seniors on the team were Gianna Latella, Hailey Ferrigno and Devan Field.
Juniors included Maddie Ambrosino, Charley Baker, Taylor Borkowski, Erin Craig, Camilla Dalpiaz, Paige Garrity and Julia Javier. A large sophomore class featured Madison Abel, Madison Fitzgerald, Mary Rohmeyer, Riley Dinnell, Sophia Galante, Sydney Haddad, Emani Davis, Erin McGovern, Jameson Susi, Arianna Thomson and Alexa Kelly. The freshman were Gianna Amaturo, Makenna Balcezak, Caroline Schultz and Ava Strobel.
It’s a special group to Cooper, who said, “It’s an honor to end my career with the most loving and accomplished cheerleading program I have ever been a part of.”