Strong leadership puts Hampton spirit squad back on the mat

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Thursday, January 23, 2020 | 5:54 PM


The Hampton competitive spirit squad has been affected by coaching changes the past two seasons. Last year, it didn’t field a competition team and only cheered at varsity events.

But dedication from a strong senior class and a committed new coach, Kathy Long, has the team heading back to nationals.

Having been split into two groups in May — the “Gameday” squad and the “Mat” team — both qualified for the National High School Cheerleading Championships.

Long owns Fire & Ice All-Stars cheerleading gym off Route 51 in the South Hills. She took over after moving to the Hampton area recently, and carries with her 20 years of experience in competitive cheer.

“It’s still a work in progress,” she said. “I jumped on board to start building a better program. I think a lot of the kids were lost. They went through two different coaches in two years. It was kind of flipped upside down.”

After passing on the job two years ago because of scheduling conflicts, the stand-alone competitive cheer job opened up. Long is unable to make most varsity events since she works at her gym every weeknight.

Of her two-decades worth of experience in competitive cheer, however, her high school competition resume was limited to a short stint at North Allegheny years ago.

“I know cheer inside and out,” she said. “But high school is completely different than all-stars. I just felt I wasn’t sure what we’d get this year because these new kids are so inexperienced with skills and competition environment.”

The team featured a mixture of green underclassmen with a strong veteran leadership core — seniors Ashley Berg, Ryan D’Amico, Jordan Fink, Jaidyn Lange and Rhiannon Rutkowski.

“Coming into this year with the new coach, I was kind of timid about it at first,” Berg said. “But once I got to know her, she was so nice and has really built this team back up. And now we’re counting down the days to nationals.”

Long was pleasantly surprised with the dedication in a high school environment that doesn’t always lend itself to such.

“In all-stars, all the kids are talented and they’re paying for it,” she said. “So they’re going to work for it. With school I wasn’t sure if I was going to have kids missing. But not even one handful of times has a girl missed practice. I think maybe I had two girls miss one practice all year.”

That dedication from coach and players alike was paramount on a team which more than half had never cheered competitively before, according to Berg.

“We have a small group of seniors, and we’re such a tight team this year,” she said. “Our bond with each other is so strong. This summer, we worked really hard, our coach worked the basic skills to work up so we could do our more elite skills and routine, and there’s just been so much improvement since the beginning of May.”

The commitment paid off at the WPIAL championships as well. Hampton finished seventh in the small varsity division — just one place out of state qualifying.

“I think they all wanted the same thing,” Long said. “They wanted a good program back. … That dedication is what surprised me. They’re eager to learn and never ask to take a break. And I think they were successful this year because of that.”

The team is preparing for the NHSCC Championship, which is Feb. 7-9, in Orlando.

“As a team we’re just ready to push the hardest we’ve ever pushed before,” Berg said.

“Do the best that we can. And just have a fun time as a team bonding together.”

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