By Desirée Keegan
All the girls wanted was to hear Centereach’s name called. When they heard they were going straight through to the Universal Cheerleaders Association national championship finals, they couldn’t have predicted the chain of events that would occur.
The Cougars had never reached the national finals. As the high of hearing they were in wore off, and they had to hit the stage the next day, the nerves started to kick back in.
“Nobody really talked,” junior Lynda D’Alessandro said. “We weren’t hyping each other up like we were the day before, we weren’t hitting — we weren’t confident in what we were doing.
It was just a different vibe. But as soon as we were getting ready to compete, everyone was saying, ‘C’mon, we’ve got this. Everyone’s been working so hard. It’s only 150 seconds, we can do it.’ At that point, I said to myself: ‘We’ve got it.”’
Centereach nailed its routine, and knowing they were up against three previous nationally-ranked Division II Large Varsity teams from Long Island, the girls weren’t sure where the chips would fall.
“We were shaking,” sophomore Corinne Michalski said as her team waited for the results to come in. “If you were sitting by that semicircle our team was probably the loudest because we were hysterically crying.”
The girls sat uneasy, fingers squeezed between one another as they heard team after team get called before them. Once the judges reached the Top 5, the Cougars couldn’t contain their excitement.
“If you ask me or anyone else, we would say ‘I don’t know how it looks; I don’t know if we’re going to do well,’” D’Alessandro said of her team’s mentality heading down to Florida to compete. “Hearing two national champion team’s names get called before us, I thought, ‘How does Centereach, a team that’s never made it past the preliminary round, go straight through and place ahead of them?”’
With two teams left, Centereach was finally called, and for the first time in school history Feb. 11, the cheer team placed at nationals.
Naturally, yelling and screaming ensued.
“It was a feeling like no other,” Michalski said. “None of us went down there expecting to do what we did. Every single week at local competitions we never even placed. We [faced] teams we never in our wildest dreams thought we could beat. It still feels like a dream; it doesn’t feel like I’m awake.”
Centereach had several members drop out at the beginning of the season, and pulled up an eighth-grader to fill the squad. Over the course of competition, the team was never at full strength, with a cheerleader or two usually sitting out due to injury or illness. Watching her team compete on the national stage in the preliminary round, head coach Stephani Catalano said she couldn’t believe her eyes. Her team was one of two from the field of 14 to hit a perfect routine.
“The first 26 seconds of our routine are the hardest part of our routine,” she said. “We say the second the arabesques hit, we know the rest of our routine we can hit without even thinking about it. It was amazing to see them use all their energy and finish a flawless routine. It truly left me speechless.”
She said her girls were determined moving into the finals. She said they never rested on their laurels.
“We wanted to earn that trophy,” Catalano said. “We didn’t want to rely on making it straight through past semifinals. We had a lot to prove. We didn’t get there by luck — we’re in a hard division, and we proved we deserve to be there. I know now their fire is going to burn brighter and bigger than it ever has.”
D’Alessandro said it’s Catalano who was the catalyst behind Middle Country school district making history. The four-year varsity coach graduated from Centereach. A former cheerleader for the Cougars, Catalano never made it to nationals, and was finally able to take her team the last two seasons. In 2017, the girls didn’t make it past the first round.
“Before her, we never placed at competitions; it was never possible,” the three-year varsity cheerleader said of her coach. “Stephani’s attitude and her heart and her passion for the sport made a complete difference. She has a lot of faith in us doing well, and that we’ll make her proud. She’s helped me not only become a better cheerleader, but a better person with the lessons that she’s taught me and my team.”
With the core of the Cougars returning next season, the girls are confident, despite the added pressure associated with finishing second. Catalano said the girls are already asking to start practicing.
“We can start off with more confidence instead of working up to it,” Michalski said.
Her teammate took it a step further.
“There’s no reason we can’t be national champions,” D’Alessandro said. “People keep coming up to me and congratulating me and all I can say it, ‘Thank you.’ Maybe in a week or two it will hit me — we’re second in the nation. I never expected us to make history for Middle Country, and we did it.”