Hampton competitive spirit squad adapting to all-new calendar

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Saturday, January 30, 2021 | 9:01 AM


The Hampton competitive spirit team still hasn’t started its 2020-21 season, when in any other year it would almost be over.

Covid restrictions pushed back the WPIAL championships from early January to mid-March, and the PIAA and national championships — at which Hampton is a regular qualifier — were moved to April.

“I think this year WPIALs is going to end up being our first competition,” second-year coach Kathy Long said. “It will be our first match when usually we would have been done with our season at that point.”

While other Hampton winter sport teams are negotiating the unprecedented demands of a covid-altered season, the competitive spirit team is biding its time with twice-a-week practices in preparation for the WPIAL championships March 13 at Hempfield.

“Last year we got our feet wet before we dove into WPIALs,” junior Shannon Shaughnessy said. “This year is going to be tricky for the girls who have never competed before.”

The Talbots usually would tune up for WPIALs by entering Universal Cheerleaders Association regional meets, which serve as qualifiers for the NHSCC championships in Orlando. But the regionals — which attract hundreds of competitors in contrast to a typical basketball game or wrestling match — were virtual events this season. Because Long knew the team couldn’t travel to Florida in February amid the school’s covid restrictions, they skipped virtual regionals.

“We weren’t planning on doing nationals this year,” Long said. “Now they have moved nationals to April, so depending on (Hampton) regulations at that point, the girls may be able to go. But I feel like that is a very far, hopeful goal.”

Two years ago, the Hampton cheerleaders didn’t even field a competitive team because of coaching issues, instead performing only at school’s game-day varsity and junior varsity athletic events.

But they returned to competition last season, and the youthful Talbots placed seventh at the WPIALs and missed an invitation to the PIAA championships by one spot.

It was a promising revival for the Talbots, who had won the WPIAL small varsity division title as recently as 2017 and had qualified for the PIAA championships five consecutive years, capped by a fourth-place finish in 2018.

They made the strong comeback despite a number of newcomers to competitive spirit team, which is essentially the top athletes from the school’s varsity and JV cheerleader squads.

“I think as many new kids as we had, they had a great season,” Long said. “A lot of local high schools have a lot of all-star kids on their high school team. They have kids that tumble and compete year-round. There’s not one all-star kid on our (competitive spirit) team. We are trying to play catch up when it comes to tumbling and things like that.”

Leading the way is senior backspot Grace Claus, in her fourth year with a program that placed top 15 in the nation in 2016 (13th) and ‘18 (14th).

Shaughnessy, a main base, and Bella Adkins, a junior first-year flyer, are also key members on the 15-girl roster, along with seniors Saige Loebig, Gracie Nelson and Alyssa Nyilas and junior Kendall Pryal.

The Talbots are working on moves such as full-ups, handstand-ups and half-up switchups as they look to perfect their routine for WPIALs.

A strong showing at Hempfield would be fitting reward for the Talbots after a season full of interruptions. The team in late January was finally able to put together a seamless two weeks of practice.

“Almost every week we would have a practice canceled because somebody had covid or somebody was exposed to covid or something along those lines,” Claus said after Jan. 25 practice. “But this past two weeks is the first time we had pretty much everybody at practice, and it went really well, and we’ve been hitting all our stunts.”

Reaching the PIAA championships, however, will be difficult. Typically, 16 WPIAL teams qualify. This year only the top four in Class 3A and top three in Class 2A will be part of the pared-down field April 9 or 10 in Hershey.

“As long as we all focus and make our routine consistent, I think we will do great at WPIALs and hopefully make it to states,” Claus said. “I really hope we make states because that would be really great for all of us, and everyone would love it.”

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