Baldwin competitive cheer squad pivots to virtual routine, makes nationals

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Sunday, January 31, 2021 | 9:01 AM


The Baldwin competitive cheerleaders have entered the land of the unknown.

Baldwin qualified for the Universal Cheerleaders Association nationals again this year, but this time virtually. It marks the eighth consecutive year the Highlanders have made the national event under the guidance of coaches Taryn Madden and Dena Mihalsky.

This season, teams recorded their routines in their home gym and submitted it to UCA Nationals through an online portal, to be judged against teams who also enter that specific competition.

“Our team was able to get qualifying scores for both the mat (traditional routine) and gameday routine,” Madden said. “This was the first time our routines were showcased for the year in which we placed first in mat and second in our gameday. We will continue to compete virtually. UCA is working on moving nationals to the spring for a chance for cheerleaders to compete in person.”

Mihalsky said the Baldwin girls remain committed to the program despite already qualifying for nationals.

“Our videos so far have been awesome,” Mihalsky said. “We are working on another video to submit to a virtual challenge through UCA.”

Mihalsky also noted that competitive cheerleading routines at the high school level are established to energize a crowd as well as encourage crowd interaction during the cheer portion.

“The crowd’s reactions play a major role in the energy felt by our team to continue through with their routine,” she said. ”The pandemic has affected much of our season. In addition to the typical ‘on’ and ‘off’ weeks and missing the summer skills camps that many teams have faced, we’ve found that a lack of a crowd during our recorded performances has proven to be a challenge.”

The WPIAL competitive spirit championships have been pushed back to March 13; the state competition is scheduled for April 9-10.

Baldwin is the defending WPIAL Class AAA champion. The Highlanders placed fifth last year in the large division at the PIAA finals in Hershey.

The Highlanders are led this season by seniors Bayleigh Bartic, Lexi Utzig, Emma Kuskie, Grace Hampton and Taylor Mincin. Bartic, Utzig, Kuskie and Hampton are co-captains.

Bartic has been a cheerleader since the second grade, and has cheered in high school for four years. She is a cosmetology student at Steel Center Vo-Tech and has a 3.9 GPA.

“Although we have experienced many challenges this season, I believe we are still rising to our goals,” Bartic said. “Over quarantine and in the summer, the seniors encouraged the girls to participate in Zoom workouts to keep each other motivated. This really helped us stay active during the time we were unable to be cheering.”

There are 10 juniors on this year’s squad: Ella Palatucci, Julia Balaschak, Ryan Bigley, Lindsay Molinero, Jordan Gremba, Kayla D’Angelo, Elianna Sinkule, Erin Hampton, Izzy Acquaro and Avery Pasquale.

Rounding out the team are sophomores Ava Wodarek, Paige Brain, Ava Vavro, Alana Beermann, Skylar Kelly and Samantha Davis and freshmen Brooklyn Lucas, Grace Iaquinta, Carly Birks and Shae Stephens.

“This season has not felt like any in the past,” Bartic said. “The new girls have not been able to experience the ‘Best of the West’ competition camp we go to every year where we focus on teaching new skills. The new (team) members have been doing so amazing that you can’t tell it was their first time doing these skills.

“Although we’ve had to overcome obstacles, we overcame them together. We are all in this together.”

Mihalsky praised the tenacity displayed by the Baldwin cheerleaders so far in 2020-21.

“We are working at every practice to push through each challenge we are presented with,” Mihalsky said. “There is one thing that the 2020-2021 team has continuously proven time and time again, and it is that they will not give up.

“From the ninth graders through the 12th-grade team members, they are extremely motivated to make this year the best it can be. They are one of the hardest working and (most) self-motivated teams I have had the opportunity to coach. Our team motto is, ‘All in for Baldwin,’ and they, and their awesome families, are all in all the time.”

The UCA National High School Cheerleading Championship took place last year from Feb. 8-10 at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla.

Last year for the first time, both teams at Baldwin made it to the final round. (It’s been one or the other in years past). The mat team ended up eighth in the Large Varsity Division 2 category; the gameday team placed seventh in Super Large Varsity Division 2 .

Baldwin’s mat squad secured third place in Large Varsity Division 2 at the national competition two years ago.

“This season has been very different than past years,” Madden said. “Our tryouts were pushed back and we started much later than normal. Our girls have been wearing masks since our first practice in July. It is part of their uniform by now; they are so used to it.

“Although we’ve had our fair share of covid disruptions, we are determined to make this season the best we can by taking full advantage of any opportunities we get to be together. We are never guaranteed our next practice, so each time we are together, the girls are working hard and having fun.

“We also created a routine that is possible no matter how many ‘off’ weeks we experience and knowing in the back of our minds we have to prepare for the future now.”

Bartic remains upbeat despite the pandemic. She is hopeful the Baldwin cheerleaders will be able to perform in person sometime before the end of the 2020-21 season.

“This pandemic has not been easy for the cheer world,” Bartic said. “We have only participated in virtual competitions so far, but I am hoping we will have some in person this season.”

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