Captains help Baldwin competitive spirit team find championship form

Friday, February 7, 2020 | 6:54 PM

Outstanding teams require exceptional leadership.

Meet the captains of the Baldwin competitive spirit cheerleading squad, which won the WPIAL Class AAA championship for the first time in school history.

The Highlanders, who placed fifth in the large division Jan. 11 at the PIAA finals in Hershey, are led by the senior trio of Alaina Wodarek, Paige Young and Abby Zuder, the team captains.

“Our captains have been phenomenal,” said Dena Mihalsky, Baldwin’s co-coach with Taryn Madden. “They are so inspiring and motivational. Alaina, Abby and Paige are always positive, calm and patient through the ups and the downs.

“As we told the girls at our first practice after our WPIAL win, we achieved a very big goal and it is a special memory none of us will ever forget.”

Madden said the three captains have been pivotal forces in the squad’s success. Baldwin qualified for the National High School Cheerleading Championship on Feb. 7-9 at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla.

“Paige, Alaina and Abby helped push this team from Day 1,” Madden said. “They each bring something different to the team, but as a combination are an unstoppable force.”

Wodarek has been a cheerleader and gymnast for four years. She also is a National Honor Society web editor, student council president, and a member of the National Arts Honor Society, da Vincian Society and math league.

She held big aspirations for the cheer squad prior the start of the 2019-20 campaign.

“As soon as our team was put together and we started stunting, I had a feeling it was our year,” Wodarek said. “At the Best of the West camp, we wrote down individual and team goals. Mine was to win WPIALs. Our performance at the WPIAL finals was unlike any other of the season.”

Young has been a cheerleader for 12 years. She said winning the WPIAL title was a thrilling experience.

“As soon as the music ended, we all hugged each other and tears of joy and relief immediately started flowing,” Young said. “I am proud of every girl on that team. The reason we succeed is because we all love cheerleading. We look forward to coming to practice. We didn’t and we will never settle for ‘good.’

“Our work ethic is unique. I’ve never been on a team that is so determined and positive.”

Off the results of the 2018-19 season, Young believed a championship run was within reach for the talented Baldwin squad.

“We had pretty high expectations coming off a third-place finish at nationals,” Young said. “We had a few freshman on our mat team this year who really had a lot to learn, so we’ve been holding them to pretty high standards.

“We went into the WPIAL competition with our goal to hit our routine and we did just that. As a leader of the team, I couldn’t ask for much more. Four years ago, I would’ve never imagined a WPIAL title. This was a great accomplishment. Hard work really does pay off.”

Young has a 3.5 GPA and is an executive board member for the Special Olympics club and president of the Best Buddies program.

After high school, she plans to study speech pathology and hopes to continue as a cheerleader at West Virginia, Pitt or Penn State.

Zuder, similar to her teammates, was proud of the Highlanders’ crowning achievement at Hempfield in the WPIAL finals.

“I could not be prouder for the routine we put out at WPIALs,” Zuder said. “We worked so hard to perfect every detail, and to see it all come together was incredibly rewarding.

“I had high expectations for this season because of how we’ve been progressing steadily every year. We had many returning cheerleaders, so we were able to learn (more difficult) and newer skills rather than relearning old skills. Winning WPIALs is something I’ve dreamt about since I was a freshman, and I knew we had a chance this year to win.”

The senior class on the Baldwin squad is represented by Wodarek, Young, Abby Zuder, Emma Zuder, Erin Fader, Kathy Nguyen, Olivia Lucas, Olivia Przywara and Olivia Kniola.

“It is remarkable to reflect on how far the team has come from my freshman year,” Abby Zuder said. “Every year, we continued to become stronger. I’m immensely grateful to my teammates because they’ve granted me with an unforgettable experience, and we will be friends for life.”

Zuder discussed some of her functions as a team captain.

“My first role was to help my coaches put together a team that would give us the best results, which was something we went back and forth about all summer,” she said. “Another important role is to be a leader. Captains have to be strong and confident in order to motivate, to never give up and to keep persevering.

“It is also important to pay attention to every teammate and let them know we are always here for them as a captain and as a friend.”

Young said keeping a positive approach for competitions and at practice is key.

“One of our most important roles is to be someone that everyone feels comfortable coming to,” Young said. “I think it’s important keeping a positive attitude because with the skills we have in our routines, it can be very frustrating because of the difficulty.

“I’m very proud of my team. We’ve worked so hard at practices.”

Wodarek has a 4.1 GPA and has received an invitation to try out for Kentucky’s cheer program.

“They are 24-time national champions,” she said. “My goal and dream is to cheer on that team. I plan to major in biology and pursue a medical career.”

Emma Zuder, Abby’s twin sister, said she was astounded by the electric atmosphere at the WPIAL finals.

“As soon as the music started, I knew our performance was going to be special,” she said. “Each skill we hit added to the atmosphere, and I felt goosebumps all over my body. I cried as soon as we finished because I knew we had performed a routine we were proud of, and there is no better feeling than that.

“I knew this season had tremendous potential and high expectations. Every girl on the team, whether new or not, proved they were committed and all in from the very beginning. So I knew we were going to have a special season.”

Abby Zuder, who owns a 4.2 GPA and plans to double major in chemistry and forensic science at Seton Hill (and room with her twin), represented the attitude of the entire team regarding their two dedicated coaches.

“I’m forever grateful to have had such amazing coaches as a high school cheerleader,” said Abby Zuder, who is involved in the Math League, da Vincian Society and sideline cheer.

The Highlanders practiced twice per week in three-hour sessions in preparation for the national championships, which are televised on ESPN and ESPN2.

Their three captains — who made their fourth trip with Baldwin to the national event — led the charge.

“We have a tradition before states where we write characteristics on socks about each person and how all of those things help our team be its best,” Madden said. “Paige received ‘instrumental,’ Abby ‘motivational’ and Alaina ‘inspirational.’

“Those are the attributes we think each of them have been in their time on this team. They were proud to receive these words as they know how much they mean to us and this team.

“These three and this senior class is going to be a tough group to replace.”


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