The Wahconah cheerleading team celebrates its second-place finish at last month's state championship.
DALTON, Mass. — The Wahconah cheerleading team may not have had a chance to cheer at Gillette Stadium this year, but it still had a pretty good fall.
It's going to Disney World.
In addition to supporting their school's football team on a run to the Western Massachusetts championship and a narrow loss in the state semi-finals, Wahconah's cheerleaders last month earned a spot in the UCA National High School Cheerleading Championships with their performance at the Massachusetts fall state championships.
"It's very exciting to get this opportunity," Wahconah captain Kaylea Cornwell said. "Last fall season, we came in eighth in the state, and knowing how much we've improved in on year, that's really great."
Wahconah finished second out of 15 teams in the "game day" competition at last month's state meet at Shepherd Hill High School. State champion North Attleboro earned an automatic bid to February's national championship in Kissimmee, Fla. Wahconah qualified on points, earning the program's first bid to nationals.
Or its second, depending on how you count.
"In the winter [of 2017], we got a qualifying score for nationals, as well," Wahconah coach NIkki DiMassimo said. "It's strange, but we got the bid in March, and the game day nationals are in February, so it really doesn't do you any good."
Game day is a cheerleading discipline that focuses less on flashy dance moves and more on leading cheers.
"There's a game day division and a performance division," she said. "The game day is more about about crowd engagement.
"That's more fitting to our team, anyway. We cheer at every home and away football game, and we cheer at all the basketball games and all the tournament games. … A lot of the teams that do performance division don't really participate in many games. We're one of the few teams that goes to away games."
Cornwell said one of the keys to Wahconah's success this year was an influx of experienced freshmen.
"Last year, we had only two girls coming in as freshmen," she said. "The [freshmen] really stepped up this year. They worked really hard. And I think it showed the rest of the team. In previous years with freshmen we had to start from scratch. This year, we didn't have to start from scratch because the freshmen had the experience. All of us worked together."
DiMassimo notes that Cornwell herself was a one reason that incoming freshman class was so strong.
"She was actually their coach in the youth program," DiMassimo said. "She coached them last year. So she knew what they needed to do to come up to be good in high school. She helped prepare them."
Cornwell, herself a product of Dalton's youth cheerleading program, enjoyed the challenge of helping lead the next generation, a role she filled again this year.
"It was difficult but it was fun being on the other side of the cheerleading," she said. "Instead of doing it, I got to make up the routines and teach them how to do everything instead of being the one learning how to do everything. It was exciting and fun to get the other side."
Another reason for Wahconah's success this fall: a big junior class of eight cheerleaders who stuck with the sport. DiMassimo said it is relatively rare to have a four-year senior like Cornwell, the only 12th-grader on this year's roster.
"We usually have a lot of kids as freshmen, and then as they get into high school they branch out into other things," DiMassimo said. "This year, luckily, we have eight juniors. That class is just as big as our freshman class. That helps with Kaylea to provide leadership and help the new people."
DiMassimo and assistant coach Shana Collins will lead a squad of 18 cheerleaders to the Magic Kingdom for the competition on Feb. 10 and 11. The team has until Jan. 11 to raise the $1,200 per competitor it will cost to fund the trip.
"The good thing is the community has always been pretty supportive," DiMassimo said. "We've just been trying to collect donations from businesses. We're about a third of the way there from donations, and this Saturday and next Saturday we're going to be doing gift-wrapping at the Lee Outlets and the Berkshire Mall from 12 to 6."
The cheerleading team is grateful for all the support it has received this year - financial and otherwise, Cornwell said.
"I feel we hadn't really had recognition in the past, but this season, we've had a lot of recognition from our parents, especially, and even at school people will come up to me in the halls and say how good we are," she said. "The students and the teachers never really noticed us in the past. Being told how good we are all the time helped motivate us."
DiMassimo said that she likes her team's chances of making a strong showing at the national game day competition.
"If you're in the [performance] division, you have to have the most elite skills to even be looked at by the judges, basically," she said. "This is all things that we do at games. They're pretty simple stunts, but if you're not engaging the crowd and the crowd's bored by what you're doing, you're not going to score well. When we get there, I think we'll be pretty evenly matched with the other teams.
"We just have to fight the nerves being there on that stage."
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