Baldwin cheerleaders finish 3rd at national competition
Baldwin’s Alaina Wodarek said it’s every cheerleader’s dream to finish among the top three teams nationally.
“And it doesn’t happen often,” she said.
Baldwin’s competitive cheerleading mat squad did just that, placing third in the Large Varsity Division 2 at the UCA National High School Cheerleading Championship held Feb. 8-10 at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla.
“In Orlando, we performed our best routine out of every practice and competition for both the mat and game day teams,” said Wodarek, who divides her time in the winter months between cheerleading and gymnastics.
“When panels were combined on the final day, we did close to a perfect routine to finish third overall. We all cried happy and sad tears. We didn’t want the season to end or perform for the last time as a team. The experience became surreal.”
“The energy in our final warmup was electric,” said Taryn Madden, who shares the Baldwin coaching duties with Dena Mihalsky, “and as soon as the girls walked through the castle you could feel their confidence. As they hit their stunt sequences, tumbling passes, pyramid and our signature ‘All In’ cheer, Dena and I could not help but cry knowing they gave everything they possibly had to give.
“The girls came off the mat so proud of what they did. They hit a zero deduction routine (no mistakes) and we were the only team in the finals to do that. At the award ceremony, we were just hoping for top 10, but as they kept moving up (the list of finalists) we got more excited each time we didn’t hear our name. When they got to the final three teams, we all started to cry again knowing that we had just made history in our cheer program. This was a huge accomplishment for our program.”
Mount Sinai (N.Y.) High School, with 85.3 points, and St. Hubert Catholic High School of Philadelphia, with 83.8 points, garnered first and second place. Baldwin racked up an 82.5 point-total.
“Both of those (top two) teams have won the national championship before, and to be so close in scores to them was an amazing accomplishment,” Madden said. “Third place truly felt like first in our book. All the time spent at practices from August to February, fundraisers, local competitions, every minute of our season was worth it seeing those medals around their necks.
“We were and are so proud of our team and how close of a bond this team has made. It’s tough knowing our season is over, but we are ready to get back in the gym and get ready for next season.”
The Baldwin cheerleaders’ previous highest ranking was a 12th-place finish in 2017.
“This season has been one that I am absolutely sad to see go,” Mihalsky said, “but it was filled with many memories and lessons that I know our cheerleaders will carry on with them. The success of our 2018-2019 season already has our program looking forward to the start of the 2019-2020 season. Our cheerleaders are already ready to get back into the gym and begin working on new skills.”
Baldwin actually had two teams at nationals, the Super Large Varsity Game Day squad, which acts out football game-like scenarios with sideline dances and cheers, and the Large Varsity Division 2 squad, with traditional competition routines.
Going into the weekend competition, there were 88 game day teams and 33 large varsity teams. Baldwin’s game day squad advanced to the semifinal round but missed qualifying for the finals by a few points.
“They had their best performance of our season in the semifinal round,” Madden said, “and although they didn’t move on, we were so proud of the routine they put out on the mat.
“They are truly their best on the sidelines, and it shows in this type of performance how much they love to cheer. We are excited to step up our game day routine for next season in hopes of placing higher and getting back into finals for the first time since 2016.”
Baldwin’s mat team did advance to the final round.
“For the weeks leading up to the national competition, our main focus was performing routines that would give us the best chance of success in the rankings once down in Florida,” Mihalsky said. “For both our teams, the nationals score sheets were broken down into two categories, the cheer portion and the music portion.”
The Highlanders were led by a trio of captains in senior Paige Ernst and juniors Alaina Wodarek and Paige Young.
Ernst was one of four seniors on this year’s squad, along with Erin Winkowski, Carly Utzig and Hannah Barker.
Ernst is planning to attend Morehead State for business marketing and to continue her cheering career at the Division I level with hopes to make it to the Olympics as a USA cheerleader.
There were 28 girls in Baldwin’s competitive cheerleading program in 2018-19.
The junior class was represented by Wodarek, Young, Emma Zuder, Abby Zuder, Erin Fader, Olivia Rossa, Olivia Lucas, Grace Vavro, Olivia Kniola and Sophia Cavataio.
Half the squad consisted of sophomores and freshmen.
Sophomore cheerleaders included Lexi Utzig, Bayleigh Bartic, Grace Hampton, Emma Kuskie and Taylor Mincin. Freshmen included Ryan Bigley, Jordan Gremba, Julia Balaschak, Ella Palatucci, Kayla D’Angelo, Elianna Sinkule, Erin Hampton, Avery Pasquale and Lindsay Molinero.
“The team worked really hard this season and the reward was worth it,” Wodarek said. “This season was our strongest. We gained confidence with our routine(s) and believed in each other.
“My favorite memory was when our music ended and we all began to cry and hug, knowing that was our best performance. Also, when Paige (Ernst) jumped into the pool in her uniform after we placed third.”
The diminutive Wodarek was honored to serve as a co-captain this season.
“Having the title of captain is a true honor,” she said. “Baldwin cheer has a special place in my heart and it means so much being a leader to my teammates.
“As a captain, I focus on the performance part of cheer. I especially wanted the freshmen to have an amazing first-year experience where they could have fun and not have any worries while on the mat. I tried to build their confidence and wanted them to fall in love with cheerleading.”
Mihalsky said a key to the program’s success this season was the remarkable leadership displayed by the older girls.
“The senior and captain leadership this year was extraordinary,” Mihalsky said. “They led the underclassmen and the new (team) members with constant positivity and respect. They instilled a sense of trust within the team that made them all want to work harder for each other.
“Our teams worked so hard this season and, as a coach, it was an amazing feeling to see their faces light up as they walked off the performance mat when they could sense that their hard work had paid off. The third-place ranking was truly the icing on the cake of an already fantastic experience.”
Mihalsky said it was a group effort at Baldwin.
“In both of our routines this year, the catch-phrase during the cheer portion was ‘All in for Baldwin,’” she said. “Throughout our season, it is safe to say that every single one of our cheerleaders, and their families, were truly all in.
“Between our summer camps, choreography weekend, regularly scheduled practices, holiday break practices, etc., our cheerleaders give up a lot of their time to be sure they are in attendance at all events. Our cheerleaders work hard during practice and many of them take classes outside of practice to work on their tumbling skills to add more difficulty to our routines.”
Madden offered a high compliment to Mihalsky’s coaching style.
“Dena puts so much time and effort into this program, the girls would not be where they are today without her,” Madden said.
For Wodarek, her attention now goes directly to the gymnastics season with the WPIAL championships on the horizon.
Baldwin’s gymnasts advanced to the WPIAL team championships, and Wodarek, the team’s only junior, qualified individually in the gold division.
“Gymnastics and cheer keep me extremely busy,” Wodarek said. “On Mondays, I had cheer for three hours. Tuesdays, I had gymnastics for two hours then went to cheer a basketball game. On Thursdays, it was gymnastics for two hours then straight to cheer for three. On Fridays, I cheered at games, and on Saturdays we had four-hour gymnastics practices.
“I keep myself motivated to make the most of every minute I get to practice and compete. I love what I do.”
Wodarek was a WPIAL champion in the gold division floor exercise last year.
Ray Fisher is a freelance writer.