By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — At a home varsity football game at Niskayuna High School on Oct. 2, young cheerleaders in festive red and white shouted and danced in unison, led by the high school cheerleaders. It was one of the only times this season Niskayuna football fans would see red and white pom-poms lining their home field.
Budget cuts at the end of the 2011-2012 school year resulted in the Niskayuna High School varsity and junior varsity cheer teams being cut back in their seasons and activities.
Earlier this year, other programs, cut at the same time for financial reasons, began to be reinstated. Freshman sections of soccer, field hockey and football returned, to name just a few.
But the tumbling, stunting and chanting of the varsity cheer team — and their JV counterparts — are nowhere to be found until later this fall, when basketball season begins.
Their appearance at the football game was just to encourage their younger counterparts on the Niskayuna Recreational Cheerleading team, which is part of Niskayuna Youth Football and Cheerleading.
Cheryl Johnson, a parent of four current and former Niskayuna students, misses the spirit of the program. Two of her three daughters, now 29 and 21, were on the cheerleading team at Niskayuna. Her youngest, a 13-year-old eighth-grader, is eligible to try out for varsity cheerleading when it resumes during the basketball season. But Johnson says it’s not the same experience.
“It’s so important for these girls,” she said. “It’s exciting; it’s fun. They’re outside.”
Cheering for basketball, which has continued despite the cuts, is a valuable experience, but a different one. The girls play to smaller crowds, are indoors, and have to focus much of their energy on their competition season, rather than the pure school spirit of football games.
“When you think football, you think cheerleaders,” said Johnson, whose son, now a junior in college, played varsity football at Niskayuna.
There are about 12 girls on the varsity cheer team each year, coach MaryJane MacPherson said.
“It’s small, but it’s strong. It’s quality,” she said.
Enrollment in the program has not wavered since the loss of the football season, but the coach and her cheerleaders agree that more structured practice time would benefit all involved.
“Time goes by really fast during basketball season,” said senior Jelani Rice.
None of the girls on the team have ever experienced cheerleading during football season, because the cuts were implemented just before they arrived at Niskayuna as freshmen. But they get a taste of the spirit of fall cheer when they coach the recreational cheerleading team.
“It’s pretty much the only night we’ll be out on the field,” senior Kellee Farrigan said.
Still, they keep a positive attitude. Valerie Brooks, also a senior, said they hoped to pass their enthusiasm on to their protégés.
“We want to show the younger girls what we’re all about,” she said.
Niskayuna’s varsity cheerleaders keep a characteristically peppy approach to the situation by embracing the task of teaching little ones their sport.
“This is our time to have fun with each other,” senior Samantha Fusco said.
But their coach said the less-structured mentoring would be well complemented by a football season for the older kids.
“The hours you put in obviously are going to show,” MacPherson said. She explained that football cheering would provide the building blocks for cheer basics, techniques, and team chemistry that could propel the team further during competition season.
“Without football cheer, it’s tough because we have to start from scratch,” she said.
The exclusion of cheerleading from sports funding at Niskayuna is especially surprising considering New York state ended the debate over whether cheerleading is an activity or a sport when it was officially sanctioned a sport in April.
Without fall cheer, there’s no outlet for athletes to practice the complicated skills they need for competition season until it’s nearly begun.
“What they do in their sport with tumbling and stunting on the mats, it’s comparable [to other sports],” Johnson said. “They work a lot.
“When I was their age, I couldn’t do that,” she added.
Junior Ashley Rosencrans said she loves the physical conditioning that comes along with basketball season and wishes the cheerleading team could embrace it year-round.
“You’re getting your workout and having fun at the same time,” she said. “I wouldn’t do any other sport than cheerleading.”
For cheer mom Johnson, it’s all about bringing cheer to the same level of quality as Niskayuna’s other sports.
“I think all the programs are important,” Johnson said. “The biggest thing is getting the information out to the parents. What can we do?”
Johnson noted that before fall cheer was cut four years ago, she remembers a time when the district had incrementally reduced funding for the program to the extent that would have prevented the team from traveling to away games. The PTO and Booster Club worked together to raise money for buses to games at other schools, and the opportunity to travel returned. She hopes that sort of initiative will turn up once more to bring cheerleading back to the fall season for good.
She said it was hard to see the cheerleaders without an opportunity to practice their sport while others gained additional sections and funding.
“A football player can play JV. They can play modified, based on their skill,” she said.
Cheerleaders, however, can’t perform at all at school until basketball season begins. In the meantime, they’ll work together to promote the enthusiasm and school spirit they just can’t seem to let go.
“We want to get people excited,” Farrigan said.