Stage is set: Greater stage, greater meaning for WAHS cheerleaders at first-ever PIAA championships

Becca Swanson was getting teary-eyed just talking about it.

She’s one of eight seniors and 13 cheerleaders in all from Warren Area High School competing in Saturday’s inaugural PIAA Competitive Spirit Championships at Hershey Park Arena.

It’s a bigger stage -much bigger – than they’ve ever competed on before, and it’s even more meaningful than that.

Nearly a hundred competitive cheerleading squads from across the state will converge in Hershey this weekend, including 37 teams in Warren’s Small Varsity division.

At 12:02 p.m. Saturday, Warren is scheduled to hit the Hershey Park mat for a 2 1/2-minute routine – maybe even a little more difficult than the one the Dragons used at this past Saturday’s inaugural District 10 competitive cheerleading championships at Fairview.

In all divisions, 95 other teams will be competing and watching.

“We’re going down in history,” said Swanson, as one of the first cheerleading squads to compete at a PIAA-sanctioned championship meet.

She thought about how awesome it will be to compete in front of so many eyes – the focus on a group of teammates that have practiced together for hundreds or thousands of hours.

Maybe even more special is the attention her team is getting right here at home.

“Two years ago… people didn’t understand what a (cheerleading) competition even was,” said Swanson. “Our school is finally cheering for us. People are finally starting to get excited for us, and not just the other way around. I don’t even know how to put it into words.”

The cheerleaders have been putting in the work for years; senior Briana Sleeman said what’s so special now is that having “PIAA” stamped on it makes people pay more attention.

“I think it should have been a PIAA sport for a while,” said Sleeman. “But being recognized for what we’ve done makes it worthwhile.”

“It’s the first PIAA states that there is,” said senior Izzy Owen, “and we’ve finally been recognized as a sport, which it is.”

Warren finished second to Fairview in the Small Varsity division at the District 10 meet at Fairview High School.

“We’re not just on the sideline, looking pretty,” said Owen.

Owen has felt the need to vehemently defend cheerleading as a sport.

“‘You’ve never done, you can’t say anything about it,'” she would tell fellow athletes, typically boys, giving her a hard time.

Now the letters P-I-A-A are stamped on the sport, just like baseball, basketball and football.

While the recognition has done wonders for their confidence, they still have a job to do on Saturday – with three judges scoring choreography, stunting, tumbling, skill level, energy, crowd noise, difficulty.

“At the district competition, we scored really well,” said WAHS cheerleading coach Brittany Bowers, “and the girls have been practicing really hard. I anticipate they will score even better on Saturday.

“At this point, I am just so proud of them for making it this far, and I want them to go to states this Saturday, take in the experience, give the judges their 100 percent best, and most importantly have fun while doing it,” said Bowers.

The top 25 percent of teams in the preliminary rounds advance to the finals; teams in the next 25 percent will compete in a playback round for one additional spot in the finals.

“Regardless of how we do, my goal is for them to have an experience they will remember for the rest of their lives,” said Bowers. “I want them to be proud that they are among the top 37 Small Varsity teams across the state out of roughly over 300 teams.”

Oh, there will be nerves.

“I almost feel like the hardest part is over,” said Bowers, “proving how good we are, and showing our town that cheerleading is a sport. I’m sure when they go out on the mat, the nerves will come back times 50, as they always do when they perform, but overall I just want them to go our there and do their best.”

After all has been said and done, and spoken like a true cheerleader, Sleeman’s goal:

“To come home happy.”