Montclair State University’s co-ed cheerleading team was officially started in the 2018-19 school year, and they qualified for National Cheer Association (NCA) national championships in their first season. During their time at the competition in Daytona Beach, Florida, they accomplished a feat that has inspired them to go to nationals again and perform even better. Now, in their third season, they are looking to improve as the team continues to grow.
“We went to [nationals] in April of 2019, our co-ed team’s first time going to Daytona,” senior base Melissa Oakes said. “We got top five in our division, which is really good.”
There are two cheerleading teams at Montclair State, co-ed and all-girl. However, both teams are usually together for most events, including practices, football games and other events, except for competition. They separate into two different teams due to the various divisions for co-ed and all-girl cheer.
A big part of the cheerleading program’s success has been the team’s former head coach of 14 years, Jane Shalkowski, also known as “Mrs. S.” Unfortunately, she passed away in May of 2019, at the age of 61.
However, the team has been working even harder to try to honor her memory and build upon the incredible legacy she left behind.
“Mrs. S was a really great coach and really pushed all of us, so her passing was really hard on all of us,” senior base Vicky MacAllister said. “It really made us all come together and want to do great for the next season in her honor.”
Shalkowski’s daughter, Stacy, has taken on the challenge of coaching both the all-girls and co-ed cheer teams after her mother’s death. The cheerleaders feel strongly about the job she has been doing.
“There was a lot of pressure on her being by herself [and] doing all of this,” MacAllister said. “She’s been doing a really good job of handling both teams.”
Unlike some club sports teams, the co-ed cheer team does host tryouts. However, each year a limited number of new cheerleaders are selected. This season, tryouts were virtual because of the pandemic. The team now has nearly 50 cheerleaders on the team, but not all of them will be competing at nationals.
MacAllister discussed the heavy competition that came out for tryouts this year.
“For tryouts, there’s usually a two-to-three day process,” MacAllister said. “This year, there were a lot of people who tried out, I think over 100.”
MacAllister elaborated on what it takes to be a Montclair State cheerleader.
“Not everyone makes the team,” MacAllister said. “You have to have certain skills and kind of fit the part of a competitive cheerleader.”
With the amount of work and effort required, the team is extremely competitive. Practices are three days a week, as cheerleaders have to work on various skills: tumbling, jumps, stunts and conditioning. All members on the team have to stay in great shape throughout the year in preparation for nationals.
Things have been even more difficult during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, as the team has to adhere to protocols put forth by the state of New Jersey, the university and the department of campus recreation.
“We normally practice with 8 or 9 [cheer] mats together, but since we have to social distance, we now do one [cheer mat] for five or six people,” senior base Allison Gonnella said. “We also have to wear masks.”
Gonnella is comfortable with the regulations set in place, as it still allows for the team to run practices without any significant shortcomings.
“It’s definitely different, but I think the protocols that have been set in place by the [university] and what our coach is having us do is working,” Gonnella said. “We are still able to work on our skills and progress as a team.”
Despite all of the challenges facing the Red Hawks co-ed cheerleading team, their primary goal is to win nationals.
“We only have one main competition which is [nationals] at Daytona,” Gonnella said. “Even though [nationals] is still up in the air, we are still practicing thinking that we are going to go out and compete. We aren’t just going to practice thinking that we don’t have to work to get better skills. We still have that mentality that we are going to Daytona and winning that first place trophy.”
The team will continue to practice and work toward their goal of placing even higher at Daytona when they arrive there again.