Johnsonburg Varsity and Junior High cheer squads earn berth to Nationals

Bob Parana - Staff Writer

For the first time in 15 years, Johnsonburg High School Cheerleaders will be competing at the Universal Cheerleading Association’s national championships. Both the Varsity and Junior High squads will be making the trip to Orlando, Florida in February.

The bids to the championships were earned at the three-day summer camp held earlier this month at the high school. Attending a National Cheerleading Association (NCA) Varsity brand camp is a necessary requirement to earn an invite to the elite competition. Through the efforts of Head coach Tarra Porter and assistants Molly Christoff and Justine Kuntz, the eight-member Varsity and 11-member Junior High teams achieved the necessary points required by the NCA to qualify. The camp was conducted following all COVID-19 pandemic requirements. New cheers, jump and stunt techniques, and dances were learned during the three-days. The squads also took part in several team-building activities.
According to Porter, the cheerleaders had to present a routine to the camp instructors Emma Fox and Randy Burnett each day. The squads had to meet certain criteria while obtaining the required score to be considered for a bid to Nationals. “Both teams worked incredibly hard to improve each day and to correct all the fine details. Their hard work and talent paid off,” said the coach.

Members of the Varsity squad include Autumn Sorg, Alex Hoffman, Emily Peluso, Kiera Marciniak, Marshal Hetrick, Rylen Crotzer, Kyleigh Anderson, and Kendal Mehalko. Gianna Zimmerman, Marlee Cherry, Zoey Grunthaner, Aliza Jackson, Natalie Dunworth, Alayna Notarianni, Skylar Biel, Ella Halquist, Allison Crowe, Tessa McCabe, and Stella Dankesreiter are members of the Junior High squad.

Zimmerman was selected as an All-American Cheerleader. Those trying out had to perform a triple jump combination among other athletic maneuvers. Exceptional spirit and showing the ability to lead the crowd was also key to earning the honor.

Porter has been coaching the sport for 15 years at several levels. Besides the Junior High and Varsity teams, she has coached all-star and pee-wee cheerers.

“The most intense and exciting part of cheer for me is competing. From the start I knew I wanted to bring competition cheer back to Burg,” she said. When she started coaching with the Shamrocks cheerleaders she knew she had a special and talented group of girls. “I always talked about competitive cheer and how great it would be if I could follow them through coaching to the High school. We are here now and a few of those girls are still cheering,” she proudly added.

The cheer mentor can’t say enough about the athletes she coaches. “The cheerleaders work tremendously hard at practice to learn new skills. The atmosphere in the gym working with them is so positive. We get goosebumps watching them get excited about learning new things. They encourage each other and boost each other up. They have the drive to be better all the time and have this competitive edge where they push each other to do better. They never want to stop. They just keep pushing to accomplish the next goal and truly believe in each other. As coaches, it’s a proud feeling and we know they are going to blow the crowds away,” Porter said.

Skeptics, who may not feel competitive cheer is a legit sport, would change their minds if they saw first-hand the effort and strength it takes to memorize and perform the stunts.

“Go ahead and try to tell these athletes it is not a sport. The muscle aches, injuries, sweat, and tears poured into each practice, is grueling. Despite the sore muscles these athletes push on. We have seen girls knocked down only to jump right up and try again. We have watched them learn new skills and try and try again until they’re accomplished. Last year, we listened to the critics, learned all season, and improved each week during competition. These two teams have something to prove and they are doing it,” Porter said while issuing a challenge. “We dare someone who doesn’t cheer to try and do what they do.”

The highly motivated coach feels lucky to have great assistants. “Molly started with me while she was still in college. She would come home during the week and weekends to assist with the program. Justine started as a volunteer last year and has now taken over as the head Junior High coach. Honestly, we all have the same goals and have said from the beginning of this competitive journey that we would work together for both teams to give them the best experience," she said. “Coaching cheer is a huge commitment, and I could not do it without the two of them. We all love it and love watching the program grow,” Porter added.

All three coaches work full-time jobs while also spending countless hours coaching, attending games, and competitions. They do this despite not having children in the sport. “We commit our time because we enjoy it,” said the head coach.

The program is blessed with great parents on the booster boards that help in all endeavors. “They truly have our backs and we are so thankful for them,” Porter said adding special thanks to “Alicia, Jane, Sara, and Kelly.”

Joyce Maletto, who has been involved with the sport over many years, is thrilled to see the program’s success.

“I'm so happy to see the teams competing again. Tarra and her staff have done a tremendous job. It’s so amazing that they received the bid to the UCA National Championships,” Maletto said pointing out that the Johnsonburg cheer squad had earned five-straight bids to the championships from 2000-2005. “I'm so happy to see how far they have come and I can't wait to see what they do in the next few years. There is a lot of talent coming up from the seventh and eighth-grade classes, so I see this not being their last bid. I love how Tarra is letting me stay connected to the program and I wish both the Junior High and Varsity teams the best of luck. I will always be their number-one supporter,” she added.

Porter acknowledged that fundraising has been tough with all the COVID shutdowns making it hard to have contact with the public but is appreciative of the help the program has been and will be getting. “We are grateful for any sponsorship and support to make Nationals a reality for these teams while understanding this is hard times for everyone,” she said pointing out that they’ll engage more in fundraising “if and when were are permitted.”

You can check the JHS Rams Cheerleading Facebook page for fundraising opportunities. Porter also said The Sugarcane Floral Design & Gifts shop in Johnsonburg will be holding a fundraiser. Details will be forthcoming. The cheer coach also acknowledged Tracey Crowe, “a very supportive parent” who has stepped up to assist and will be helping with fundraising.