SCHENECTADY — The gymnasium at Mont Pleasant Middle School echoed with rhythmic counting and the stomping of feet Monday, as a nine-member cheerleading team from Schenectady-Belmont PopWarner began its final practices before it competes for a national championship in just a few short weeks.
It was another successful season for the 9-12 PeeWee cheerleading team, which won its local tournament at Schenectady High School about two months ago, earning them a berth in the regional tournament in New Jersey last week, where they again swept the competition to earn an invite to the national tournament in Orlando, Florida beginning Dec. 2.
“I haven’t cried all season,” said Emoni Raysor, the cheer coordinator for Schenectady-Belmont and the team’s coach, reflecting on the big regional win. “That was the first time I cried because they really went out there as a team.”
Like any team, the PopWarner cheerleaders faced their share of ups and downs throughout the months-long season that began in August and saw the team — made-up of a mixture of first-time cheerleaders and returning members ranging in ages 9 to 13 — practicing three days a week during the school year and four days during the summer.
But the team persevered while pushing themselves and their coaches to take things to the next level, according to Raysor, a Schenectady High School English teacher who participated in the program growing up. Interviewed while the team practiced on Monday, Raysor emphasized how hard the team worked throughout the season.
“They really pushed me as a coach,” Raysor said. “They wanted to do more elite things, and I always was like ‘I don’t know about this,’ but every practice they were like ‘we can just try again.’ It’s a really determined group of kids.”
But before traveling to Orlando for a shot at a national title, the team must overcome one final obstacle: raising $10,000 needed to cover travel expenses and hotel accommodations.
A GoFundMe account launched earlier this month has raised just over $1,000 as of Tuesday afternoon.
Schenectady-Belmont PopWarner faced similar circumstances last year. After a successful season that saw three cheer teams and the 10U football squad earn a place in the national tournament, the organization struggled to raise a combined $60,000 needed to cover travel expenses just days before Thanksgiving.
When it looked like the teams would have to pass on their shot at a national title, the community rallied, donating nearly $100,000 the program used to cover the cost of travel, and purchase all new uniforms and equipment for the more than 200 participants this year, according to Billy Kent, president of Schenectady-Belmont PopWarner.
Kent is hoping the community once again rallies around the organization. He hopes it continues to grow and eventually can be free for all participants if enough funding can be raised. Interest in the program has grown since returning from a pandemic-induced hiatus in 2021, according to Kent. He said 30 more children signed up for the program this season, and the number of volunteers and coaches also grew.
“I think as long as we keep trending in the direction that we have been, I think we’ll end up where we want to be,” he said.
This year marks the third consecutive PopWarner season that Schenectady-Belmont has had a cheer team qualify for nationals, dating back to 2019. There was no season in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For 13-year-old Faith Conti, who has been with the cheer program since 2018, cheerleading has meant more than just competing, though she lit up in excitement when talking about how this would be her second trip to Orlando to compete for the national title. Her first came in 2019.
Conti said the program is where she has met most of her friends and emphasized how everyone put aside their differences throughout the season to come together as a team. She’s hoping for a championship before entering high school next year, where she plans to continue cheerleading.
“It’s been exciting and stressful,” Conti said. “This is my last year, everyone will be coming back next year but me because I’ll be in high school. This year is the one that matters the most to me. It’s exciting that we’re going to nationals, but it’s also scary.”
Kent said the program’s 12U, 10U and 8U football teams just missed out on their chance to qualify for the tournament this year, but noted the 10U squad — composed of 9- and 10-year-olds — will be competing in the finals of the Empire State Championship against West Genesee in Syracuse.
“I think the impact is huge for our kids and our community just because of the exposure we’re getting,” Raysor said. “We’re not just getting exposure here locally. We went to Jersey and now we’re going to Florida, and sometimes kids don’t have that opportunity, per se, and I think with a sports program you do get that opportunity.”
For 12-year-old Jenae Raysor, who has been with the PopWarner program since 2018 and will be attending her second national championship if funding can be raised, participating in the program has meant more than just a chance to compete.
“It keeps me kind of consistent,” she said. “There’s a lot of different opportunities that come.”
To donate to the Schenectady-Belmont PopWarner PeeWee cheerleading fundraiser, visit: https://bit.ly/3E9AVf1.
Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.