BY MICHAEL KELLY
NISKAYUNA — It was a different kind of season for the Niskayuna varsity cheerleaders, and one that the team hopes leads to a longer season in coming years.
The New York State Public High School Athletic Association designated cheerleading as an official sport starting this school year. In the past, cheerleading teams — which perform in competitions when not cheering on the sidelines at games — had been categorized as a club activity.
Jelani Rice, a senior on the team, had competed previously with the Niskayuna cheerleading squad. While the change from club to sport did not affect where the team competed in 2014-15, Rice said the acknowledgement of cheerleading as a sport helped to change how hard the team competed.
“This year was the hardest,” said Rice. “This year was the most intense among ourselves.”
There were rewards for that heightened sense of competition within the team, which competed as a Small Division I squad, a division for large schools that compete with 16 or fewer cheerleaders. Niskayuna went to four competitions this winter, placing second twice, coming in fifth at the Suburban Council Championships, and finishing 13th at the regionals.
That last competition stands out for senior Breanna Carpico.
“We were going against so many schools, from everywhere, and it was really cool to see what everyone was doing,” she said. “It was very intense.”
“The last one [regionals], we were going against a lot more teams than at the others,” freshman Gabby McCullen added.
Individually, senior Samantha Fusco was named top gun jumper at the Saratoga Lightning Bolt Challenge, one of the competitions at which coach Mary Jane MacPherson’s squad came in second place.
Larry Gillooley, Niskayuna’s athletic director, said cheerleading was under his stewardship even before the state elected to designate it a sport. He said the change from club to sport, though, has meant cheerleading has received greater priority this season, something he said is appropriate given the changing nature of the activity.
“Cheerleading has changed drastically over time,” he said. “Back when I was in school, it was a sideline spirit team. If you watch them today, they’re incredible. They’re very good athletes.”
They want to get better, though, which is why MacPherson and her crew are hoping for fall cheerleading to be reinstated sooner rather than later. At present, Niskayuna’s cheerleading program is active only during the winter; fall cheerleading was axed several years ago, along with other athletic programs, because of budget needs.
Most schools have varsity cheerleading for both the fall and winter seasons. While there are separate tryouts for those seasons, cheerleading teams often maintain the same core roster — meaning a competition routine could be learned and practiced starting as early as August at some schools in the area.
“And, we can’t start until November, so it’s tough,” MacPherson said.
“If we had a fall program, we’d be able to work on our routine more and do better at competitions,” sophomore Autumn Reichelt said.
Gillooley said he is hopeful fall cheerleading could return to the roster of Niskayuna athletic offerings, but he does not know if there’s a timetable for that happening.
“I think we’re at a disadvantage that we do not have fall cheerleading,” he said.
But that did not dampen the positive spirit of the winter season. Senior Valerie Brooks said while this year’s team focused more on competition, it still made time for fun.
“We all bonded and did our thing,” Brooks said.