Milford cheer teams jumping at chance for Nationals trip

MILFORD — Two city cheerleading teams are one step away from a trip to Orlando, Fla., and a spot in the National Cheer Competition.

The Milford Eagles’ junior pee-wee and junior varsity teams each advanced to the regional competition — in Lowell, Mass., on Nov. 6 — after placing first at the local competition on Oct. 23. If they place among the top two in their respective competitions there, the teams hit the road to Orlando.

“This is the first time junior pee-wee will be possibly advancing to Nationals,” Kelly Armstrong, parent of one of the competitors, said. “This is also huge because this will be the last year the girls in the JV can advance to Nationals. So if they can both go and share this, it would mean so much, especially to the younger girls.”

The junior pee-wees are competitors ages 8 to 11, while the junior varsity are ages 10 to 13.

According to Karen Schumann, director of Pop Warner cheer and junior varsity head coach, the teams competed in the Southern Connecticut Pop Warner region, and the top two teams from that division qualified to go on to compete at the regional level. Then the top two teams from the regional level are invited to go to nationals in Universal.

“Our junior pee-wee is very exciting for them because they are a younger team, and this is their first time going up to regional,” Schumann said. “For our junior varsity team, this would be their third time going to regionals, and that team has gone up to nationals and was a national champion in 2018.”

Despite the junior varsity team qualifying in the past, Schumann said a couple of its members graduated from the team, and with new members coming in, there are only 13 members left from the team that won in 2018.

“Although we do have a good chunk of girls who have gone in the past, it’s really like a whole new experience for almost half of our team,” she said. “I think the younger team kind of looks to that older team, as a team who has been there and done that.”

As the director of cheer, Schumann does not know who the junior pee-wee or the junior varsity cheer teams will be matched up against, but they are practicing for any situation.

“We won’t know until probably the middle of next week what teams that we will be going against,” she said. “One of the things we tell our team, and this has always worked for us as well, is to compete against yourself. Like whatever score we had the last time, let’s try to score a little bit higher, so instead of making it a competition against another team, make the competition between themselves, so that they can learn to look at their score sheets and better their score sheets so they realize they are improving every week.”

If the two teams can qualify for nationals, they will have to purchase plane tickets and cover other expenses associated with going to nationals. This is why parent volunteers have started a GoFundMe page to raise the money they would need to cover the round-trip flights from Connecticut to Florida. According to the fundraiser, if they raise the money goal of $2,000, they can cover even more expenses, including rooming and costs for volunteer coaches.

“Without the parent support, the team is not going to be successful,” Schumann said. “Parents need to be 100 percent on board and really be in the back of the girls, encouraging the girls, getting them to fundraisers, helping to promote the fundraisers, because it is very expensive to bring a team down to Florida. I know our junior pee-wee team is working really hard. The JV team has been fundraising a little bit longer only because we have done this before. I know that parent involvement is key to the success of any youth program, but in particular, to a team that is advancing to a team advantage to Florida, you need all the parents on board.”

Qualifying for nationals would be a big accomplishment for the teams, and it would mean they get to see other top teams in the nation, but also, Schumann said going to an event like nationals helps with the character development of the cheer members.

“I can tell you from a mom perspective and coaching perspective that I’ve seen girls that were so shy and were so introverted and quiet, and once they have gone through regional and nationals, there is a different level of confidence with them,” she said. “They feel more confident when they are walking in a room, and they are more social and outgoing. It’s almost like they get this fear out of them to be in front of people.”

Schumann remembers a parent coming up to her after the end of the season telling her how their child was a different person and wouldn’t think their child could do something like this if it wasn’t for cheer.

“So the confidence building,” said she said. “But also, it’s a pretty cool thing to say that you’ve competed at a national level. Not too many kids get to have that opportunity.”

Being able to go to Regionals and Nationals not only benefits the cheerleaders but also has a positive impact on the coaches.

“The coaches are watching the routines, videotaping routines, asking parents to tape other routines, so we can watch and try to incorporate some different things into the routines we make for the kids,” said Schumann.

From a parent’s point of view, Armstrong said seeing her daughter go to the regional competition and potentially qualify for nationals would be a great experience.

“It would be so meaningful not just to me, but to the other parents as well,” she said. “We had a meeting with a lot of the parents trying to come up with fundraising ideas to get our girls there, because like I’ve said, the girls have worked so hard.”

As a parent watching from the stands, Armstrong has seen how the teams have improved throughout the season.

“It’s amazing to see the change,” she said. “Watching them do their halftime show and their sideline cheers, I wasn’t expecting the competition to go as far as it did, but I am super proud of the girls because they’ve put a lot of heart and effort into their competition performance. Honestly, there wasn’t a lot of fundraising going on, and we weren’t anticipating going much further, and they have been competing so well, and it really shows that the girls have been trying really hard.”

Schumann agrees, stating she’s seen improvement in the teams from the start of the season on Aug. 1 until now.

“I can tell you the teams have worked so hard, and unlike most seasons, where they always work hard, I think this year in particular, it’s been much harder of a challenge, mainly because of COVID,” Schumann said. “The way the health department has it is that people aren’t feeling well, they don’t want people at practice, so it’s hard to have full team practices, and when you don’t have a full team practice, you just can’t do the pyramid.

“I am so beyond proud of how hard the teams have worked,” she added, “and how they have managed to overcome the obstacles of having missing kids at practice and yet still able to perform at this amazing level and be able to go on to compete at Regionals with the hopes of Nationals.”