There have been fumbles, drops and girls flipping right onto their faces. And then bloody noses, black eyes and three sprained ankles. But they keep working. A cheerleader shoots into the air, but her leg wobbles as the hands that hold it lose their grip and balance; she spins around loosely and falls back into the arms of her team. They try again and again, not quite there yet.
The varsity cheerleading team at The Master’s Academy has seen many trials. The team’s been pushed to its limits this year, going through frustrating practices, never hitting their competition routine just perfectly and practically begging girls to join their squad. Many on the team have never even cheered before, let alone nailed the back flips and pyramids the squad hoped to make a part of their routine.
“There’s no experience here, we’re going to have to teach them everything,” said Coach Missy Mandato, when she first started working with them last year.
A first for the school
But they built each other up. They practice for hours, cheer at nearly every sports game at their school and go to tumbling practice in their spare time. Their season is a grueling 10 months, and takes a lot of sacrifice.
That sacrifice has paid off, though. For two years in a row, the squad has won the first-place award at the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) Competitive Cheerleading Championship for the Small Varsity category. They’re the first athletic team — not just cheerleaders, but all teams — to ever win a state title in the school’s 25-year history.
“It was really a miracle, they won by .4,” Mandato said.
The team was in 7th place heading into the competition from regionals. Odds were against them making a repeat of last year’s win. As they saw the other teams hit the stage, their confidence wavered.
To learn more about The Master’s Academy, visit mastersacademy.org. To see the cheerleaders’ winning performance, go to tinyurl.com/CheerMasters, and fast-forward to 1:25:00.
“I don’t think a lot of us believed in ourselves,” said team captain Madeline Mandato.
Madeline remembers waiting behind that curtain for her team to go on, the three minutes tickling by felt more like 20. Then she heard her schoolmates out in the audience — an impressive 75 out of their tiny school’s population of 250 attended — chanting their “red hot” cheer, booming in the stands. A peace fell over them.
The team finally went out to perform, exploding with energy, their voices filling the arena with their cheers, movements sharp and clean and stunts that were executed perfectly. It was the first time they’d done the routine without a mistake, ever.
“It looked so effortless on the mat when we were out there,” said Erin Boncore, a junior on the team.
“Hitting the last pyramid, you could just feel everyone giving all they had,” Olivia Kingsland said.
Girls flipped across the mat with ease, popped straight up into the air held by sturdy teammates, and spun down full of grace. There was charisma on that stage and people in the audience whispered, “Wow,” Mandato said.
“I’ve never seen them like that,” she said.
The cheerleaders said that winning .4 of the score should be credited to their Master’s Academy family.
“Just hearing the crowd react, it just pushed us to keep going,” junior Katherine Deery said.
They’ve come a long way in the past two years, working hard for their school to gain the student body’s respect, Mandato said. They’ve also worked hard to always respect each other, and that’s part of Mandato’s cheer coach philosophy. She wants a team that cares about each other — they can’t only hold each other up literally. That also gives them an edge when they cheer, the girls said.
“They’re like our sisters,” said Nina DeBellis, an eighth grade member of the team. “We’re stronger than most squads.”
“I want a team that loves each other, that loves holding each other up,” Mandato said. “The talent can come if I have their heart.”