It was a night of firsts at the East Aurora Blue Devils boys varsity basketball game last Friday.
It was the first game of the season and the home opener. It was the first game with open attendance for students, parents and fans after the Covid-induced restrictions of last winter. Masks were required for all, but it still beat not being able to attend the games. It was, sadly, the first loss of the season, although the team showed flashes of brilliance that will earn them several victories this year.
But, most importantly, it was the debut of the East Aurora-Holland varsity cheerleading team, holding forth on the west end of the gym with infectious enthusiasm.
At game time last week, head coaches Jody Thur and Sydney Domanowski led 19 athletes from grades seven to 12 onto the hardwood. Roughly half hail from the Holland Central School District and half hail from East Aurora, making up what is easily the largest squad in recent memory. It was the first of what will be season-long cheering, stunting, flying and dancing appearances at home games for both the boys and girls varsity basketball teams.
Thur and Domanowski had run Little Loop cheerleading programs in East Aurora and Holland, respectively, and were eager to see their athletes move up to the next level. It’s a dream come true for both coaches, especially as the growth of the sport has continued, evolving from a sideline activity supporting football or basketball, into a skilled sport.
Said Thur, “Our athletes are not only giving cheers and chants for the teams that are playing, but they’re tumbling, flipping, lifting each other up and flying.”
Yes, flying. That’s the term for the stunt where several girls form a foundation and then toss another team member into the air. The East Aurora-Holland girls gave a preview during halftime last week, tossing two of their teammates from a pyramid formation and cradling them in a soft catch as they returned to Earth.
Another first will be the sanctioned cheerleading competition coming to the East Aurora High School gym on January 8.
“So far, we have ten schools registered,” Domanowski said, “with more likely to join in soon.”
“Each team will perform a two-and-a-half minute routine. We will be judged on our cheering, showmanship, skill techniques, degree of difficulty of the elements of the routine, stunting, tumbling and our overall transitional elements,” Thur said.
The Blue Devils are scheduled to compete in five events over the season, including ECIC and sectional competitions.
Both coaches credited the girls for the hard work they’ve put in since the beginning of official practice in mid-November.
“Some of the girls have lots of cheering experience and know each other from Little Loop, some are coming back to the sport after a hiatus, a few are new to cheer,” Domanowski said. “We’ve got the veterans helping the rookies. We’re taking tumbling lessons and the flyers are attending flying clinics. We’ve had some team building exercises. They’re working hard and coming together.”
Their spirit and camaraderie certainly showed last week. They got the sizable student crowd that had gathered in the northwest bleachers into the game with echoing chants of “Defense!” whenever Williamsville South had the ball.
Leading the team are captains from both schools: East Aurora sophomore Ava Ross, and juniors Ella Szucs and Carly Warner of Holland. Each of the 19 has a specific role to play, especially during stunts. There are five flyers: East Aurora sophomores Norah Ferullo and Ananya Barrera, seventh grader Eliza Domanowski and junior Warner from Holland and Maggie MacGregor, a seventh grader from East Aurora.
Backspots are eighth grader Cameron Jakubec and sophomore Kate Wade from East Aurora, and sophomore Olivia Jackson and freshman Kate Kopciowski from Holland. Ten Blue Devils form the base: Maddi Reich, Jayla Carreras and Peyton Courtney, eighth graders from East Aurora; captains Fuller and Szucs from Holland; captain Ross from East Aurora; Gabby Gordon and Karly Kopciowski, junior and seventh grader from Holland respectively; and two East Aurora freshmen, Jessica Reynolds and Emma Walters.
The team’s spirit leaders— Gordon and Fuller—are tasked with pumping everybody up, keeping the team smiling and positive. Spirit, however, wasn’t much of a problem last Friday. With their crisp uniforms and silver pom poms sparkling across the gym, the East Aurora-Holland cheerleading team is well on its way.
Like most athletic endeavors, especially at the high school level, it’s about more than sports. Coach Thur sums it up this way: “Cheerleading is a tough sport. It requires physical strength and endurance. Our athletes condition daily as a team and also on individual routines that pertain to their positions. Cheerleading also disciplines and trains the athletes in timing and goal setting. Every practice our athletes have, they give themselves a goal of making it better than their last practice. They are learning to work as a team and solve problems as a team. There is genuine encouragement on the mat and court and each of these athletes truly wants their teammates to succeed. We also promote team bondings and for the girls to speak freely with advice to each other that goes beyond the mat. They really respect each other and treat each other like sisters. Being on the team creates friendships that will extend past high school. This team takes pride in representing their school and town and acts like leaders. We empower our athletes to make good choices and do the right thing. Everyone of these girls represents integrity, dedication, strength, and confidence. They’re amazingly hard workers and great athletes.”