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Pioneers cheerleaders shine at competition

8th-graders win 6th-straight title, 5th-graders post high score

By Ken Keenan
TINLEY PARK -- Cheers and tears, flowers and hugs, wide smiles and shiny trophies, forever photos and proud parents -- that was the scene during the Keep Calm and Cheer On 2015 Cheer Competition on Nov. 15 at Andrew High School.
The Orland Park Pioneers hosted the event, the first of its kind for cheer teams from the River Valley Youth Football League.
The event, which featured nearly 500 girls from first-through-eighth grades on 25 cheer squads and 2 pom squads, represented five communities and marked the culmination of the 2015 season, which began in late July. A packed house in the gymnasium eyeballed every lift, every tumble, every synchronized move. The endless hours of hard work and dedication were on full display.
Pioneers cheer director Kim Dombrowski served as master of ceremonies for the competition.
"This is huge for us," said Dombrowski, enjoying a quiet moment during the event's lunch break. "The girls work toward this the entire season -- this is their Super Bowl -- and we want to represent ourselves in our first year in this league ... want to make our presence known."
In the end, there was little doubt that they did. The Pioneers teams earned trophies in five of the competition's 19 categories while posting the highest score of the day, and tying for the second highest mark. Place-finishers are determined by a specific range of points for each place, resulting in some categories ending up with no definitive first place winner.
The Pioneers won the Fifth Grade Cheer Large Group with a meet-high score of 92.84. 
"It's phenomenal," said Orland Park coach Lori Bartley of her combined fourth- and fifth-grade team. "The girls work their tails off -- 68 hours of work for a three-minute routine. I'm so proud of them. It's an amazing group. We have a lot of great tumblers, and our stunts are phenomenal. And our junior coaches did a great job, too."
Dombrowski witnessed the top-notch performance.
"People were in awe -- the synchronicity, enthusiasm," she said. "Error free on all stunts, lifts, and the tumbling passes were perfect; and folks just knew they were going to take first place. It was a 32-girl squad, which is also amazing in itself. You don't see that size normally in competitions."
Bartley's championship squad consisted of: Taylor Allen, Allyson Burke, Kierstin Cappello, Abby Fandl, Kayleigh Rose, Kaylee Swiech, Averey Bartley, Kaitlin Bauer, Brittany Bokker, Bella Dahlberg, Paige Gasparas, Ella Gillund, Raelee Gravitt, Emma Herout, Audrey Hickman, Amber Hoak, Samantha Jeffries, Giselle Jreisat, Mariah Karamagianis, Chloe Lavalle, Jocelyn LaValle, Mia Maniatis, Mckayla Onderwater, Gianna Patterson, Sydney Pisarik, Sarah Santana, Claudia Sawic, Terra Schommer, Genevieve Schramm, Aleksandra Simkus, Gretchen Steenvoorden, Natalia Stratton and Betty Tsoutsas.
The Pioneers' Eighth Grade Cheer Medium Group captured year-end honors for the sixth-consecutive year. They tallied 89.34 points to match squads from Homer and New Lenox for a first place finish and the second-best overall point total of the competition.
"They showcased unbelievable twisting stunts and tumbling passes and high school level stunting," said Dombrowski. "For a rec squad, you saw this team performing at the competitive competition level of cheer. 
"It was all acommplished in less than three minutes, which included 30 seconds of audible cheer. The crisscrossing of their tumbling passes was mind boggling. Their success could be credited to having the same junior coaches and coaches for the last few years along with expecting to win each time out."
The performance led to euphoria amongst the group.
"I'm overwhelmed ... couldn't be happier," said coach Melissa Nelles. "I'm so proud of these girls. I think the difference was, they were very together -- very uniform in their routine. They had a little extra sass in their routine."
Team member Lexie Nelles, the coach's daughter, said, "It's a lot of hard work and communication between all the girls. We've been on the team together for seven years, and (and finishing first) six years in a row is something I'll remember for a long time. All the injuries, and sweat, it really paid off in difficult conditions. I'm happy and proud."
Added teammate Lexi Alfini: "I was really nervous. We wanted first place again, so it feels really good to win. It was all of us working together. We practice three times a week, and that can be hard work, but you have to have teamwork. And it is a lot of fun. I'm proud of my teammates, and the trophy is an accomplishment for all our work."
The members of the Pioneers' six-time champions are: Alfini, Kennedy Costa, Nina Dixon, Breanne Ferguson, Faith Fiore, Fiona Gallagher, Meghan Haran, Hallie Hultquist, Alissa Kochanny, Alexandra Kolodziejczyk, Rugile Laurinaityte, Veronica Leafblad, Lauryn McDonald, Lexie NeleSamantha Poda, Madalyn Riebel, Samantha Santana, Caroline Schmidt, Rorie Wilson and Jenna Witt.
Orland Park's Sixth Grade Medium Group overcame adversity to take first place honors with 88 points.
After it was discovered a week before the competition that a key member of the squad would not be able to participate, the team had to change its routine. The resilient 22-member squad got down to business and nailed their performance, which included spot-on lifts and tumbling.
The Sixth Grade Medium Group included: Alivia Achterof, Leah Baker, Madeline Casey, Brooklyn Cooper, Carleigh Fountain, Maria Gonsch, Erin Haw, Abby Hilbring, Brianna Iraci, Marissa Jentel, Haley Kolinski, Ella McDonald, Ariana Morris, Megan Murphy, Victoria Panek, Gianna Rapisarda, Angelina Salaita, Kara Stevens, Nicole Tatar, Kristina Vasiljevic and Lija Vigants.
The second-place finishers for the Pioneers were the Third Grade Large Group (83.34) and Seventh Grade Large Group (83.17).
The third grade team changed its routine the day before but finished just two points shy of first. The group hit its stunts and extensions and stood out due to the synchronization between the 24 girls on the team.
Representing the Pioneers' Third Grade Large Group were: Sophia Allen, Nicolette Allen, Nicole Bonfitto, Annabella Cannici, Lucie Chicvara, Kaitlyn Cloutier, Aubree Conroy, Ciara Coyle, Marianna Cuevas, Natalie Felthouse, Linda Floyd, Gianna Frech, Reanna Iannantone, Lilly Jeanes, Samantha Masino, Morgan Meiszner, Tasneem Othman, Abby Overman, McKenna Patton, Gileena Rezzardi, Reese Rodriguez, Olivia Skrocki, Sieira Sporleder, Gianna Staudt, Vivian Villa and Allison Welch.
"Hitting all the stunts was the key," said Orland Park third grade coach Annette Rodriguez. "The girls worked very hard and accomplished a lot this season, and half of our squad was new this year. As coaches, we're very proud of them. They put in a lot of work, dedication and concentration."
The Pioneers seventh grade team's second place finish was a surprise after their excellent routine. They performed at a high level in their tumbling and stunts with no glitches, and excelled in the three phases of the competition: audible cheering, tumbling, and dance (synchronized stunts).
Members of the seventh grade team are: Caitlyn Brennan, Anna Crnich, Kayla Dombrowski, Maureen Fandl, Marissa Garza, Breanna Gasparas, Gabriella Gianakas, Lexie Hansler, Maura Harty, McKenzie Hedinger, Kayle Hoak, Ella Jeffries, Kylie Kehlert, Samantha Kowalski, Morgan McGuire, Hannah Scranlon, Ava Stroobosscher, Brianna Timmons, Michelle Vicencio, Natalie Villarreal and Meagan Walsh.
The morning session featured the first- and second-grade competition. That age bracket normally doesn't participate in competitions, but found a stage to show their developing skills. The age groups were combined together as one team and placed second from among more than 20 teams. Their performance was notable because they executed lifts called preps and extensions that aren't normally performed at that age level.
"Competing like this is a difficult thing at this age -- it takes a lot of concentration," said Orland Park  coach Jennifer Annel. "But being happy, and having fun, that's the reward -- and feeling good about themselves. We just told them to have fun and do their best."
Added fellow coach Josie Tunney: "Seeing them all work together, we're thrilled with them. They showed their personality -- a lot of smiles and confidence (Sunday)."
The Orland Park first and second grade team was comprised of: Lily Masino, Graysen Staudt, Kenzie Whitlow, Ella Groark, Alexandra Keysboe, Ryligh Maugeri, Natalie Oprondek, Mia Vassalla, Vanessa Annel, Kennedi Bernsfield, Ava Bernardi, Cate Burke, Natalie Dado, Nadia Karamagianis, Keira Kehlert, Kamile Petruskaite, Kaelyn Ponce, Makenzie Prah, Gabriela Rodriguez, Isabell Rodriguez, Natalie Schmidt, Sophia Shamhart and Aileen Tunney.
The credit for the event was spread among many contributors.
"The Andrew High School staff was the best and very accommodating," Dombrowski said. "They did everything they possibly could do make our competition a success."
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