HIGHTSTOWN: Pop Warner cheerleading team is Disney bound

By Amy Batista, Special Writer
TRENTON – The Hightstown Pop Warner Cheerleaders took first place recently at the 2015 Pop Warner National Cheer & Dance Championship and are headed to DisneyWorld to compete at the national competition next month.
But the group still needs help raising funds to get there.
“Those girls have shown us what ‘Rams Strong’ means and we are proud of them all,” said Toni Stanley, assistant head coach and cheer delegate.
Assistant Coach Stacy O’Donnell said the girls have been fundraising all season in hopes that this dream would become a reality.
“The cost per girl with flights is approximately $850,” she said. “We are about half way there and are asking for donations to help us raise more.“
Cheer Director Michelina Thornton has started a GoFundMe account with a goal of raising $5,000, which needs to be paid soon.
As of Nov. 24, the GoFundMe account had raised $1,975. Those who would like to show support can visit gofundme.com/24abu2ek.
Cheerleading was officially recognized as a sport in the 1970s, but has been a part of the Pop Warner program for several decades. The first National Cheerleading competition was held in DeKalb County, Georgia, according to the Central Jersey Pop Warner website.
Today, 160,000 children are participating in cheerleading and dance around the United States, according to the website.
The Junior Pee Wee and Pee Wee division regional was held at the Sun Bank National Arena on Nov. 14 where the local squad competed against 17 teams.
From there, the cheerleaders will move on to the nationals that are being held at the Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex Dec. 5-11. They will be representing the Eastern Region of Pop Warner, which consists of New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Washington, DC.
Cheer was reintroduced to the Hightstown/East Windsor Area in 2003. This year the Hightstown Rams had four teams, Flag, Mitey Mites, Junior Pee Wee and Midgets, which had a total of around 52 girls enrolled in the program ranging in ages five through freshman in high school.
“As a first-year director, it has been stressful at times. But seeing the girls at every level perform and hit their routine on the mat makes it all worth it,” Ms. Thornton said. “Watching the girls gain confidence, smile and try things they may not have thought possible is really the reward.”
Going to Disney is definitely a bonus, she said.
“I have been fortunate to have tremendous support from former board members, current board members, coaches and parents,” she said. “It really takes everyone to step in to help.
The team is lead by Head Coach, Stephanie Ward, who has been coaching for Pop Warner for 12 years.
“She choreographs the entire routine and works magic with the girls,” said Ms. Thornton.
Assistant coaches are Stacy O’Donnell, Toni Stanley, Kathryn Cunningham, Mackenzie Mauro.
“We also have amazing junior coaches – Blake Slattery, Lilian Palmere and Melanie Martin,” said Ms. Thornton. “These coaches give up their time starting every day in August, and are there at all practices to make sure the girls are prepared and ready to compete.”
Assistant Coach O’Donnell said the competition brings together hundreds of cheer teams from across the country to compete for the national title.
“In order to make it to the nationals, the girls had to first place at the Central Jersey Cheer Competition at the Sun Bank Arena on Oct. 10,” she said. “Then they needed to place at the Eastern Regional Cheer Competition again at the Sun Bank Arena on Nov, 14,” she said.
The reaction to the girls placing first is the best, she added.
“It is the most rewarding thing you can imagine to know that all the blood, sweat and tears these girls left on the mat were all worth it,” she said.
She said 15 girls on the squad will be competing at Disney on Wednesday, Dec. 9. The competition will be broadcast live on ESPN, although the exact time and order of appearance has yet to be published.
“This is the first time any of these girls will be competing at the national level,” she said. “I know we have had teams go before, but not sure at what level.”
After each competition, the routine is changed slightly based on judges’ comments to ensure a better outcome for the next competition, she added.
“Each member of the squad plays an important role and without each and every girl, working together, they could not have gotten as far as they have,” said Ms. O’Donnell. “These girls are not just members of a cheer squad, they are family. When you spend that much time with each other you form a bond that cannot be broken.”