2010-12-15 / Sports

Local squad takes 1st place in nat’l cheer contest

Sports champions are often seen in commercialsw here they say they’re “going to Disney World” for their post-victory celebration. But for 19 girls in Metuchen’s Pop Warner cheer program, Disney World is where their victory took place.

On Dec. 6, the Pee Wee Junior Bulldogs (girls ages 8-10) won first place in the Small Novice division of the Pop Warner National Cheerleading Championship at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports HP Pavilion. It is Metuchen’s first-ever Pop Warner National Cheerleading championship

Mayor Thomas Vahalla announced the win during the Borough Council meeting on Dec. 6, and the girls will be honored at the Dec. 20 council meeting, he said.

Eleven-year-old Eve Baliff has been cheering for five years and has been to Walt Disney World before, but said the national championship was filled with “new experiences” for her.

“I never thought about competing before. When my mom told me some girls get to go to Disney, I just thought about the theme park,” she said.

But when Eve arrived at Walt Disney World, it was different. “I could feel it in me. During competition, I remember thinking ‘tight motions, smile, look at the judges’ ” and everything else the coaches had told her.

Eve’s job during the stunts is to be the “back spot.”

“I make sure the girls don’t fall,” she said. “I like all the girls. It’s fun to put the girls up in the stunts.”

This also was the first time that cheer director Melanie Shapiro had attended the national competition.

“I took over Metuchen Pop Warner three years ago, and I’ve always promised myself I would not go down until I sent a team,” Shapiro said. When asked about her thoughts as she watched her team compete, she added, “The competition … it’s a big daze. We [Shapiro, head coach Kelly Delabar, and assistant coaches Sue Heinze and Robin Varga] were holding each others’ hands and waiting.

“They are the foundation of a budding cheer program that has been making tremendous strides over the last few years under strong leadership,” Shapiro said in a statement. “Metuchen Pop Warner has slowly been making a name for itself, both locally and within the very competitive Eastern Region, and now with a National Championship, is known throughout the U.S.”

Eve’s mother, Barbara Baliff, said the entire confidence-building experience has been great for her preteen daughter.

“Cheer isn’t cute girls standing around in uniform, it’s incredibly athletic,” Baliff said. “She’s going into her teen years knowing ‘if I work hard and really focus, I can accomplish great things.’ It’s the kind confidence that comes from working hard.”

In a previous, regional competition, the Metuchen girls took second place to a winning team from Allentown, Pa. In Walt Disney World, as the winners were being announced, coaches, family members and girls sat and looked at each other, Baliff said. Fifth- through second-place teams were identified, yet the Metuchen team hadn’t been mentioned.

“Some of the moms thought we didn’t even place,” Baliff said. “Then they announced us in first place. It’s thrilling. It’s awesome.”

The girls on the team are Baliff, Catherine Buren, Sophia Caposino, Alexandra Ciardiello, Catherine Coleman, Angelique Dulin, Koral Heinze, Jordyn Lebovits, Tarra Lourenco, Molly Lunt, Harmoni McCullum, Tyshona McLean Van Dyke, Madison Miller, Yeaniris Muwakkil, Paige Plunkett, Lauren Thumann, Theresa Tamasco, Abigail Varga and Hannah Young. They also have help from two high school girls who demonstrate steps and stunts — Stephanie Kearney and Katie McPartlan — as well as team parents Lisa Lourenco and Catarina Young.

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