Wantagh High School’s cheerleading team has earned a bid to the national cheerleading competition in Florida later this month.
It’s another feather in the cap of the greater Wantagh-Seaford area — Seaford High School’s cheer team also will be going to nationals, as will MacArthur High School’s team.
“This is the first year that we’re going from the small to medium division — the first time in Wantagh history,” Jaclyn Bonlarron, one of the coaches for the team, said. “We got our choreography in the fall, and the girls have been working on their routine since.”
Wantagh’s cheer team had to work extra hard this year, since the football team had a successful season. Their time performing at football games overlapped with cheer competitions, so they had to do both. As well, they took part in “Operation Christmas Child,” a charity toy drive spearheaded by cheerleader Kayla Spisto.
Cheerleading is a year-round sport, with the cheerleaders practicing in the offseason — spring and summer — at gyms outside of school to hold on to their form. August is when tryouts start. In addition to performing at football games, they prepare for competition.
Three senior captains — Jessica Balkunas, Emily Drago and Ava Lombardo — lead the cheer team. All three have been involved since a young age, doing gymnastics and later training at the Wantagh Arrows, a program outside of school. Katie Savage, who is also a coach for Wantagh’s varsity team, coaches the Arrows.
“It’s competitive cheerleading, starting at age five and going till 11,” Savage said, referring to the Arrows. “They finish out in sixth grade, and then most of them will try out for a team in seventh.”
There is a junior varsity cheer team, but Drago, Balkunas and Lombardo all got on the varsity team in their freshman year. All three have helped coach at the Arrows program as well.
“When I was in eighth grade, I heard about how good the varsity team here was,” Balkunas said. “I had the opportunity to get pulled up to the varsity team in eighth grade. And since then, I’ve been on the team.”
According to Bonlarron, this year is Wantagh’s chance to really come back from Covid.
“We’ve been great within our county and at the state level,” Bonlarron said. “We struggled last year down at nationals, but I give us the benefit of the doubt since it was the year after the pandemic, and there were so many teams down there.”
Training also was affected by the pandemic.
“We got to the gym as much as we could, even in masks,” Lombardo said. “We went to as many gyms as we could, practiced in our back yards, doing whatever we could.”
Since they were all freshmen when the pandemic struck, this is their first truly Covid-free year, as even last year masks remained required until Gov. Kathy Hochul lifted the mandate in the spring. Because of this, and the success they’ve already had this year, the team feels very confident ahead of nationals.
“This year, we have worked so hard to get to all the places we’ve been,” Drago said. “We won our local competitions at home, including one we just hosted in January. I feel like winning that set the tone for the rest of 2023, for all our goals. Making it to the finals at nationals is the biggest one.”
The competition will take place Feb. 10-12 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports in Florida — which now has a cheerleading arena.
“These girls really led the team this year,” Bonlarron said. “It’s a big deal switching divisions, and they’ve done amazing all the way through.”