Massapequa’s challenger cheerleading team takes center stage

The Massapequa High School cheerleading competition on Jan. 21 started like any other, with fans cheering on each team vying for the title.

But it ended with a performance that received more applause than the others.

A group of students with big bows and even bigger personalities make up the Massapequa challenger cheerleading team, the first and only team of its kind on Long Island. Their performance marked the day in Massapequa.

The Challenger Cheer program began in 2016 and is comprised of students from Berner Middle School and Massapequa High School with mental and physical disabilities. Both teams train separately during the week and warm up together before competing as one cohesive team at events.

“It’s an opportunity for disabilities to fade and abilities to shine,” said Kathleen Wegener, a LifeSkills teacher at Massapequa High School and the high school’s Challeading cheerleading coach. “Not everyone is going to make the varsity team, but everyone should get a chance to do what they love.”

The team cheers in the fall and winter at challenging Massapequa sporting events such as football and basketball games. For the first time this school year, they had the opportunity to bring their power to the varsity mat as an exhibition team in which they receive no points or placements in the competition.

On Jan. 7, the challengers team made their first appearance at Wantagh High School in a gym filled with fans and athletes from the varsity and junior varsity cheer teams.

“As soon as I heard the team wanted to compete in the varsity meet, I knew it was going to be amazing,” said Jennifer Keane, athletic director at Wantagh High School and coordinator of the Nassau cheerleading competition. “I suggested that they close the session because they were going to be performing in front of as large a crowd as possible.”

With the help of student volunteers and teaching assistants from the middle and high school, the team learned the new routine in a matter of weeks.

“They were very nervous before they went on,” Wegener said. “But we talk about how good it is to be nervous and when they got there, they just couldn’t stop smiling.”

When the team hit the mat, it didn’t take long for the audience and judges to feel the team’s infectious energy and clap along to the beat. The performance was sealed with a standing ovation.

“It was a special day for the students, and it prompted us to look for another opportunity,” said Ed Hoffman, athletic coordinator at Berner Middle School and coordinator of the Nassau challenger league. “It just so happened that we hosted a homecoming event [in Massapequa] two weeks after that event in Wantagh. Everyone was on board and we planned it right away.”

“They just love putting on that uniform and having the crowd cheer for them,” said Lauren Dean, Berner Middle School’s cheerleading coach. “Being part of the team means everything to them. Some of our students have called their old teachers [and] they are asking them to come. Their entire families come [too]. It’s really something special.”

The cheerleaders’ parents were especially looking forward to the team’s second appearance. Laura Maroldo is the mother of 14-year-old Jada, who was born with intellectual disabilities. She remembers her daughter’s emotions after the Wantagh competition.

“When she first performed, she came off the mat with tears on her face and I asked what was wrong,” Laura Maroldo said. “Tears of happiness, she told me. Just happy tears.”

Jada is a member of the Challenger Massapequa soccer and basketball teams and joined the cheerleading squad in October. Laura says she has already seen how membership in this group has helped her daughter.

“She definitely built more confidence and relationships with her new classmates because of it,” Laura said. “The opportunity for her to be proud of herself is just wonderful.”

“Life has changed. I am so grateful for the opportunities Jada and the other students have with this team and with the support of the community.”

As the athletes watched and supported the team during their performances, it was clear that the Massapequa challenger cheerleading squad is much more than just cheerleading.

“The challenger team comes out right before the results are announced,” Wegener said, “and it’s a nice way to remind athletes that there’s more to sports than winning a title.”

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