When senior cheerleader Ariel Broderick got her hands on the coveted first place trophy, she said that she just couldn’t let go.
“I ran out and grabbed the trophy,” Broderick said. “There’s a video of me hugging the trophy saying ‘I’m never letting go.’ [That] was everybody. It was just electric. Everyone had finally felt that it was worth it.”
The celebration got underway after the Montclair State University cheer team was named National Champions by the National Cheerleaders Association (NCA) after winning in the Advanced Small Coed Division III category.
The competition, which took place from April 5 to April 9, saw 430 total college cheer and dance teams converge on Daytona Beach, Florida. But for Montclair State, championships are won long before the NCA Championship.
The routine that was developed for nationals was forged in the summer heat of cheer camp in August. Along with mastering tosses, partner stunts and pyramids, Broderick said that the team developed much needed chemistry.
“I think a big part of the team working together so well is that we all have a mutual respect for one another,” Broderick said. “We all know that we came here to do well [and] to handle business. We’re all on the same page and we want to uplift each other. It was such a warm and welcoming vibe. You could look in front, behind, left and right and know that the person standing there wanted you to succeed.”
The team’s head coach, Staci Shalkowski, has deep roots in the cheer program. Along with being a former Montclair State cheerleader, her mother Jayne Shalkowski was the heart and soul of the program. Affectionately known by the cheer community as “Mrs. S.,” she led the Red Hawks for 14 years and was a motherly figure to the whole team.
After the tragic passing of Mrs. S in 2019, Staci took over as head coach as she looked to maintain her impactful legacy. The team has rallied around the memory of their beloved coach ever since.
As they looked to make a splash at nationals, the cheer team debuted a new routine as they made their first entry into the Advanced Small Coed Division III, moving up from intermediate. Graduate student cheerleader Rebecca Carrone said that this made the run up to Daytona unique when compared to previous years.
“This year has not been like any of the other years and I think that’s why we did so well because we switched up our routine,” Carrone said. “Because we go [to Daytona] and do the same routine every single year. This year was different. We were also in a new division. Our performance times were later so we had all day to practice.”
After being named the number one team in the category on day one, the Red Hawks earned the privilege of performing last on day two, meaning that they were scored after their competition, which could be a major advantage. However, the team still needed to have a strong performance to seal the deal.
When Montclair State took the stage in front of a packed house at Daytona Beach’s historic Bandshell, Broderick said that they put on the routine of a lifetime.
“I feel like once we hit pyramid, it was done,” Broderick said. “[The championship] was ours.”
Montclair State impressed the crowd with an exciting combination of high-flying acrobatics, stunts and fast-paced dance numbers. Carrone said that as the Red Hawks built momentum, every aspect of the performance clicked.
“The pyramid was our last structure,” Carrone said. “And after pyramid we go onto dance, which is the fun part, we’re moving, we’re doing our thing. I feel like at each part [of our routine] I had that moment. Once first stunt was over, I had that moment. Second stunt came and I was like, ‘Oh we’re good.’ Tosses came and they all looked beautiful. It was like all of the pieces [came] together.”
There was a feeling in the air amongst the team that they had put up a championship level performance on one of cheer’s biggest stages. Carrone said that in all of her years with the program, this was their greatest routine.
“I even said once we got off the mat that I don’t care about a trophy, I don’t care about a banner or [anything],” Carrone said. “We just hit the best routine we’ve ever done and that was enough for me.”
At the end of the competition, Broderick said that the wait was on to see which team was crowned the winner.
“Because we were in first place on day one, we were the last team to go in our division,” Broderick said. “So at that point, they had scored everyone else, they knew where everyone else landed so they only had to figure out our score.”
After about 30 minutes of tension, years of effort, sacrifice and tenacity, the team were finally named national champions. Many burst into tears of joy while the team celebrated by running into the ocean, a tradition at Daytona, including Broderick, who said that there was an outpouring of appreciation for everyone who made it possible.
“We did it for our coaches,” Broderick said. “We did it for [Mrs. S] who passed away. We did it for our teammate who got hurt on the first day and couldn’t compete. We did it for each other. It just showed that every hard practice, every setback, every bad day was worth it. It came together and everything we did all season was worth something. It was like being recognized for the first time.”
Carrone said the cheerleaders crowning achievement was more than just winning a trophy.
“I’ve been with this program for six years and [the team] deserves trophies every year because of how hard they work,” Carrone said. Our coach works so hard and puts in so much time and dedication into us. It’s all for her. And for Mrs. S.”