Westosha Central cheerleaders sets up for an arabesque stunt during a recent boys basketball game as Dani Dreher prepares to fly in the air. Courtnee Bader (left) and Holly Ludwig (right) offers a base while Veda Gibbs (behind) backs Dreher’s stunt (Nancy Switalla Courtesy Photo/The Report).

By Jason Arndt

Regardless of team, or sport, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way leagues and organizations conduct their seasons.

Cheerleading is no exception to the changes within the last year.

Like most teams and sports, cheerleaders didn’t experience normal traditions such as attending camps, wore masks during competitions and saw limited attendance at performances.

Westosha Central’s cheer squad, however, continued to persevere and captured a Wisconsin Association of Cheer/Pom Coaches, Inc. winter season state title in late February.

Coach Natalia Vernezze, who has guided the Falcons to six total state titles in seven seasons, said this year’s championship seemed especially sweet considering the challenges her team had to overcome amid an uncertain season.

“This team has demonstrated so much grit and determination in the face of COVID,” she said. “Even at time when I doubted the season would continue, the girls reminded me that nothing in life is easy and there are hurdles to overcome. The girls choose to move forward and continue progressing no matter the obstacles.”

Vernezze considers herself lucky and called her cheerleaders “rockstars.”

Westosha Central produced an undefeated season and only competed in two in-person events with the rest conducted virtually, including the WACPC state championship, according to Vernezze.

“We only had two in-person events. Otherwise, we filmed at home during our signed up time to film and upload videos virtually,” she said.

Season of change
Westosha Central Cheer, like other teams, started the season later than normal and couldn’t attend camp and did not begin stunting until September.

In theory, according to Vernezze, the team fell ‘behind’ compared to previous years.

“However, at our first night of stunting, the team was able to begin where last year’s team off,” she said. “It was amazing to see. Additionally, we faced many quarantines pulling out one to all of the ladies out of practice.”

Virtual competitions, meanwhile, brought another adjustment because the team feeds off the crowd’s energy and often receives unconditional support from fans.

Additionally, since the cheer squad wore masks, finding facial expressions was not an easy matter.

“In the past, our performances would draw many fans so that was definitely missed,” she said. “The energy and vibe that runs through normal competition days was definitely missed.”

However, Vernezze noted virtual competition brought one silver lining, which was competing in an event her team typically doesn’t attend.

The two competitions, she said, consisted of meets hosted by the University of Purdue in Indiana and the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

Senior stars
Vernezze seldom appoints captains because she finds the title too demanding of student-athletes.

Instead, the team decided to simply shift the duties to seniors on the squad, including Courtnee Bader, Hannah Jares, Layni Kennell and Mackenzie Ruth.

“We expect the seniors, most who have been with us four years, to help lead the team to success,” she said. “Prior to any season start, I sit down with the next year’s seniors to discuss roles and goals. I have found it very successful.”

Three seniors, in particular, have brought special leadership qualities.

Kennell, according to Vernezze, has been a steady performer in her four years on the squad.

“Layni Kennell has been our steadfast worker. She has been a solid leader throughout her four years on varsity,” Vernezze said.

Meanwhile, for Bader, Vernezze recognized the senior’s willingness to grow and becoming a positive teammate.

“Courtnee Bader has shown tremendous growth in her years with us. She continually looks to better herself and her teammates,” Vernezze said.

Ruth, meanwhile, played the role of vocal leader while showing athleticism on the mat for the team.

“Kenzie Ruth is our bold athlete,” Vernezze said. “She is able to say things like it is and sometimes teams need leaders just like that.”

Last fall, when the team underwent quarantine safety protocol, Vernezze credited junior Coral Shebenik for stepping up and becoming one of the team’s high-flyers.

However, Vernezze admits pinpointing specific standouts is a difficult task, especially since the team collected another state title.

“It’s so hard to pinpoint one specific athlete when the reality is that most of the girls stepped up when we had holes we needed to fill,” she said. “I will say that the seniors as a whole have been fantastic.”

Supportive school
Vernezze felt fortunate to even have a season, much like other teams last fall, and a group of athletes who have pushed through a series of obstacles.

“I am so lucky to have athletes who not only want, but work, to be the best they can be. They had another undefeated season.”

The gratitude extends beyond the team, she said, noting supportive administrators who have shown leadership since the start of the school year.

During the football season, Westosha Central had its biggest numbers, with 25 girls on the varsity sidelines and another 20 on the junior varsity squad.

“We were able to give everyone a chance to be a part of something in times of COVID,” she said. “And then throughout competition season, it was great to see our athletic director, principals and district administrator pop in to see what we were working towards.”

Looking ahead
Westosha Central Cheer, however, isn’t finished with its season entirely as the team looks to compete in the National High School Cheerleading Championship.

The National High School Cheerleading Championship, similar to the state competition, will be virtual and the team filmed its routine this week.

“Nationals won’t happen until the end of April though, so hopefully we can get the team together to watch our division then,” she said.

Additionally, unlike previous years, the WACPC plans to hold stunt group and solo contests in the April. These competitions are typically held in conjunction with the team contests.


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