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Pioneers cheerleaders
show their spirit, talent

3 champions, 2 runners-up at Sandburg competition


Story and photos by Ed Muniz

ORLAND PARK -- On Nov. 2, I ventured into a world I hadn’t been in for a very, very long time when I covered the Southwest Cheerleading Coordinators League competition at Sandburg High School in Orland Park.
Previously, I had been to cheer competitions many years ago in the 1990’s to give paternal support to my daughters. But what I saw recently was in no way the cute, repeating of several cheers and non-risk, everyone-in-their-spot routines I had known from previous experiences. 
What I saw was athletic performances which rivaled that of the players on the teams they cheer for at games.
These were athletes ranging from ages 9 to 14. These were competitors in the same frame of mind with one goal -- to win. This wasn’t an activity to keep the fans entertained and support the players on the field, it was a competition with teams who wanted to win.
The main job of cheerleaders is to lead cheers, be enthusiastic and have the showmanship that the role requires. At cheer competitions, for some squads, it’s much more. 
Some of the competitors are so skilled they perform stunts that may seem effortless but have guidelines and limits that must be followed.
“Each age level has a safety guideline they follow and each has a certain level of tumbling and stunting they are allowed to do,” said 20-year cheer judge Heather Reed.
Reed explained that the sport has changed quite a lot since 2000. 
“There is a lot more gymnastics involved with more stunting and tumbling in their performances," she said. "These girls come out and present themselves as real athletes, and a 90-second routine is quite physical. 
"Girls are now attending specialized cheer schools and camps and some even manage to earn scholarships as they move on into college. It is quite competitive.”
The Tinley Park Bulldogs sponsored the cheer contest, which featured two 22-performance sessions. Some squads performed in the cheer portion only, while others chose the pompon comepetition.
The Orland Park Pioneers cheer squad was among the competitors. This 161-member organization, led by Kim Dombrowski, focused on this competition only. Some squads compete in multiple events. 
The Pioneers brought five squads to the SWCCL meet and aimed to add to their already impressive collection of hardware. Last year the Pioneers brought six squads and took home five first place and one runner-up trophies.
Expectations were high.
The Pioneers had a plan for the season. Initially they emphasized their game cheers.
It shifted quickly to their special Homecoming performance and making sure that was down pat.
The Pioneers entire cheer squad performs during Homecoming and at home game halftime. This is quite an undertaking and took hours of practice and coordinating from the cheerleaders and coaching staff.
Moving forward, from that point on, the Pioneers had one thought in mind -- to do their routines as well or better than last year.
The fourth grade Pioneers.
Taking the performing mat first for the Pioneers was the Fourth Grade Cheer Squad. With the competition past its midway point, the group was able to observe performances ahead of them and had some idea of what they were up against. 
For several Pioneers, it was their very first competition. All squads met in a separate gym for some fine tuning if needed and then moved to the hall just outside the performance to await their introduction. It was there where the nervousness was at its highest.
When the team took the floor, they were the 14th squad to perform. 
Walking in one behind the other and holding hands in a serpentine manner, they marched until all were lined up with smiles beaming. The two dozen-plus member squad displayed precision and organization as they went from one routine to the next. It opened with lifts at the front and rear of the opening formation.
It got better from there as they Pioneers covered the performance mat and manuevered in unison, moving to do what they do best, engage the crowd.
Fans cheered loudly with each display of forms and lifts. A center mat formation really got the crowd cheering as the Pioneers went to a three-tier lift and back-line toss that really displayed their talents. 
The closing cheer sequence impressed not only those in the stands but those at the judges table.
These fourth grade Pioneers were tuned and precise. What made it even more impressive was the fact they had to revamp their routine due to an injury to a key member.
“These girls are so incredibly resilient,” said head cheer coach Erin Pisarik. “We had a stressful time. We had to revamp our routine yesterday in two hours when we found out one of our girls who is one of our main bases and tumblers was injured and unable to compete. They did awesome.”
For Aleksa Simkus, it was more about fun and having a good time. 
“I thought we did really good," she said. "I felt it was really amazing. We all get along and we like to do stunts and flips together, we have so much fun and that’s what we all like.” 
When asked the difference of cheering at a competition versus cheering at a game, she added; “There’s a lot more people here and there’s judges. And there’s no football players!”
The fourth grade Pioneers were so on this day, they went on to finish as the highest scoring squad in the morning session. They also scored the second highest point total of all age groups in the competition and easily earning first place in their age group.
The fourth grade champions are: Alyassa Bahar, Averey Bartley, Kaitlin Bauer, Brittany Booker, Paige Gasparus, Ella Gillund, Olivia Gomez, Emma Herout, Audrey Hickman, Amber Hoak, Samanthan Jefferies, Giselle Jreisat, Mariah Karamangianis, Carrington Landers, Chloe and Jocelyn LaVelle, Mia Maniatis, Emily Manning, McKayla Onderwater, Gianna Patterson, Sydney Pisarik, Claudia Sawic, Terra Schommer, Genevieve Schramm, Anna and Sarah Senese, Aleksa Simkus, Gretchen Steenvoorden, Natalia Stratton, Kayla Thurner, Betty Tsoutsas and Victoria Zdenovec.
The fifth grade Pioneers.
The Pioneers second squad in the morning session was the fifth grade team. For coaches Jaime Cooper and Kim Iraci this event was their “Super Bowl.”
“We work all season for this three minutes," the coaches said. "It gets them excited, we get excited. It’s like a lot of anticipation and lots of hard work and oh my god, lots of nerves for us as well.”
The Pioneers again entered in line each hooked to the other at the elbow. The 17 revelers were again all smiles with eyes shifting back and forth from the judges table to the crowd in attendance. The slight fidgeting visible was a sure sign of nerves at their peak.
Taking the floor, that all disappeared once the squad commenced its performance. Breaking up into nearly perfect symmetrical formations at the start of their routine, the more the crowd cheered them on the easier the performance seemed to flow from them. The three center lifts that went up almost spot on in 
unison generated lots of cheers and whistles from the attendees.
After a series of cheers and a group gathering, the Pioneers broke up and hit the floor with an array of crisscrossing tumbling runs to the enjoyment of the fans.
Again doing their three lifts where cheerers were lifted and held in place at their ankles, the awe inspiring squad closed out their three minutes with one final cheer and lift to a rain of applause.
The fifth grade Pioneers were ecstatic as they left the floor. Things were now in the judges' hands.
With the stress of performing now ended, a smiling and extremely happy Haley Kolinski shared her joy with the rest of her squad.
“When I got out there and heard the music, I was so pumped," she said. "We had practiced three times every week for this. I was so ready to go but when I was done, I was so relieved. We all are so happy and all worked so well. We had a great day.”
For coaches Cooper and Iraci, the three-year experience has been a lot of enjoyable work.
"We spend a lot of nights with them and get to know the girls so that’s a big plus," she said. "We watch them work hard and the new girls we added this year give their all.”
Looking every bit like champions were: Leliah Abdellatif, Alivia Achterhof, Leah Baker, Brooklyn Cooper, Carleigh Fountain, Maria Gonsch, Erin Haw, Abby Hilbring, Brianna Iraci, Haley Kolinski, Ella McDonald, Megan Murphy, Kendall Richter, Angelina Salaita, Kara Stevens, Nicole Tatar and Kristina Vasiljevic.
Whether it was some flaw noticed by the judges or a case of another team being just slightly better, the fifth grade Pioneers finished second. Still, many thought they had the best performance.
After a two-hour break, the afternoon session hit the floor. Among them would be three Pioneers squads, 
the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.
First place streaks were on the line for two teams, while the other was looking to create one. 
The Pioneers hit center stage in the sixth, 12th, and last of the 22-performance final session.
The sixth grade Pioneers.
The sixth grade team entered in a line, but as pairs that gathered in a triangular formation waiting to be given the “Go.” They burst onto the performance space and quickly spread out covering nearly the entire mat.
A series of kneel down and back up cheers and side stance poses directed at the judges got the fan support started. Now hitting their stride the squad broke its formation and headed into the lifts.
Some performed tumbling runs, while others participated in lifts. Everyone created a floor full of action and motion. The activity continued and most of the focus pointed to the back group with their execution of a stellar lift as tumbling runs continued. 
The Pioneers next shifted to a five-member lift as base support quickly moved into position and propelled the cheerleaders above ground. First three, and then finally all five looked at the judges as they went through their cheers. At one point the center cheerleader supported two others on each side by 
their ankles.
With one final cheer and formation, the Pioneers gave the crowd an entertaining three minutes to be remembered.
“I thought it was beautiful from the back,” said cheer coach Mandy Hoak. “I have been with these girls for four years so far and from what I heard, it was the best performance. Seeing them grow up with the team, their talent and maturity is the best thing.”
Pioneers sixth grader McKenzie Hedinger felt no pressure or nerves, for her it was all fun and good times. 
“I love stunting," she said. "When they put us up in the air, that’s what I like the most. It was really fun.”
The Pioneers sixth grade team features: Caitlyn Brennen, Anna Crnich, Eman Deeb, Kayla Dombrowski, Maureen Fandi, Hannah Ford, Breanna Gasparas, Gabriella Gianakas, Lexie Hansler, Maura Harty, McKenzie Hedinger, Kayle Hoak, Ella Jeffries, Kylie Kehlert, Samantha Kowalski, Abigail Kuesis, Francesca Lasorella, Morgan McGuire, Hannah Scanlon, Libby Schout, Christina Shannon, Victoria Stratton and Ava and Hannah Stroubossder.
A little wobble in their main stunt turned out to be the difference for the Pioneers, who came away with the second place trophy.
The seventh grade Pioneers.
Heading into this event, the seventh grade squad was all about doing what they had done for four years since they began. They didn't know any other place but first. They planned on continuing that streak.
Walking in one after the other, hands on hips, these Pioneers were veterans and didn’t need any instructions. Doing something different, they formed like all the rest at the edge of the mat but did it from the opposite side. Once all were in formation and given the green light, they walked out in one big group with the occasional wave to the crowd by some.
In several groups of five they quickly lifted a member, but this time they stood on one foot as they lifted the other leg behind them to the cheers of the crowd.
Coming back to the floor, they moved into their cheer formations and began to voice their own renditions. They performed a series of steps and dance moves before moving back into group formation. The Pioneers were at their best and really engaged the crowd and addressed the judges.
The facial expressions and eye contact being exhibited by this seasoned squad was just what the judges were looking for, and it was quite evident this was the squad-to-beat in this age group. The sequential and precise movements of the team clearly showed they were a group who had worked together for some time.
“The squad is amazing," said cheer coach Cindy Riebel. "It’s a great group of girls. Our junior coaches, it’s their last year so they really put a lot of time into the routine and they hit it. 
"They did fantastic. I was just as nervous as they might have been.”
When the seventh grade team left the floor, the waiting began. When the announcement finally came, it was the one they wanted to hear. The squad left as the top team for the fifth-consecutive year.
“It was fun but I was so nervous,” said 12-year-old Caroline Schmidt. “Waiting in line, I kept thinking we would do well. We have done it before. But being in front of this many people, there’s a lot more pressure, instead of the goofing around at games. We have done this before so I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Enjoying their fifth-straight title were: Lexie Alfini, Presley Bedno, Kenadee Berry, Kennedy Costa, Nina Dixon, Breanne Ferguson, Faith Fiore, Fiona Gallagher, Mehan Haran, Alexandra Henninger, Shea Jones, Alyssa Kochanny, Alexandra Kolodziejczyk, Rugile Laurinaityte, Veronica Leafblad, Lola Mancera, Lexie Nelles, Bailee Panfil, Samanthan Poda, Madalyn Riebel, Caroline Schmidt, Nicole Sendera, Sophia Senese, Rorie Wilson and Jenna Witt.
The eighth grade Pioneers.


Of all the Pioneers teams at the SWCCL competition, no other squad had more pressure to win than the eighth grade squad. They wanted to exit their final year in the organization on top and end with a three-peat for their group.
These were all girls who were well aware that this was their final year. There were no signs of nervousness or anything attributed with pressure. Typical of eighth grade girls, they were all into their own things and very much at ease in groups or alone.
Given they would be the final squad of the competition, they did manage to hang around and observe the competition in one corner of the gym lined up against an upper railing. They slowly headed to the lower level with each passing squad. This was a group that knew what it was there for and wasn’t going to do anything to escalate the pressure.
When the Pioneers were finally up, they were all business. The eighth-graders entered and gathered into two rows along the width of the mat.
When given the go-ahead, they let out a large cheer and greeting to the crowd and quickly moved into position for their first stunt. A quick and uniform five-member lift was up so quick, it looked effortless. 
They formed an “M” formation with two girls held high.
They then separated and elevated five cheerers to their highest points. They returned to the mat and now did what they do so well, cheer enthusiastically in a series of movements and positions.
The precision of each movement in unison was impressive. The continuous stunting and repeated high-level movements were made to look easy by this group. A one-legged stunt by several of the Pioneers left those in attendance amazed at the skill level. 
In a final gesture to close out their routine, it looked as if the Pioneers saluted and thanked their audience.
Now it was all up to the judges. Meticulously, they calculated scores while all the squads gathered on the mat to sit and wait. For the Pioneers, they sat with arms crossed and held the hands of those next to them.
For some, stress came into play at this point. Their competitiveness and the pressure of waiting led to watery eyes.
As other teams received awards, the Pioneers waited.
Finally their announcement came, they had captured their third-straight title and leave the Pioneers as champions.
Hailey Barnett, who had earlier in the year had referred to her arms as “the guns” sobbed tears of joy.
“We are like one big family and all such good friends," she said. "It’s so sad to know that we are leaving. I am so proud of my team because I know we all worked so hard for this. It was our goal.”
Teammate Taylor Villa wasn’t quite as emotional but still had her fair share of tears.
“I think about how much we improved during the season," she said. "There was a lot of pressure this year, after last year scoring the highest of all the teams. We are very much like a family so it’s very special.”
The champion team members are: Hailey Barnett, Alexis Batchelor, Grace Conway, Carlee Cook, Jaime Curtin, Keara Evoy,Jaime Funk, Grace Gerst, Katie Haw, Amanda Johnson, Tatiana Macias, Haley Mallary, Reilly Mullins, Alena Mustafa, Ashley Rudich, Jourdan Rzaca, Gabia Skultinas, Taylor Soffel, Allison Sporleder, Allison Stroubossder, Wioleta Tylka, Taylor Villa, Gianna Witte and Julia Wolny.
The flow of water works wasn't restricted to the cheerleaders. It included cheer coach April Witte.
“The girls worked extremely hard all season," she said. "It was quite an effort and a lot of pressure to end this way with three in a row. They have always been a great team.”
Coach Julie Cook added: “It was a goal for us. For me it was quite a family thing and the whole squad made it that way. We have the best girls we could have asked for. I was thrilled being involved with them.”
The eighth grade Pioneers again topped the point totals of the 44 teams who participated. 
Overall, the Pioneers brought five squads to the competition and left with three champions and two runners-up. It was a good day of good cheer.
Today's Schedule: Season Schedule