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BY MICHAEL CIGNOLI Officially, Wilkes University doesn’t recognize them as student-athletes. But they wear their blue and yellow uniforms at every home football and men’s basketball game and sacrifice hours of their free time every week for practice, constantly coming up with ways to improve their performances on the field and court. The Wilkes University cheerleaders have heard both sides of the “Is cheerleading a sport?” argument more times than they’ve shaken their pompoms, but the eight young women on the basketball cheerleading team don’t really care if Wilkes – or anyone, for that matter – considers them athletes. The distinction isn’t going to change the women’s passion for what they do, the sense of camaraderie the group possesses or the relentless support they provide the university’s athletic program. The latter was particularly apparent during the men’s basketball’s Feb. 23 playoff game at Delaware

Whether its rowdy opposing fans or people who don’t consider them athletes, Wilkes’ cheerleaders deal with a lot of negativity But they’ve learned to master not only their routines, but the ability to tune out the haters. Valley. By the request of men’s basketball coach Jerry Rickrode, the cheerleaders sat in the first row of bleachers opposite the Colonels. Unfortunately for the six women who made the trip, that happened to be directly below an exceptionally rowdy Del Val student section – one that viciously booed them before the cheerleaders could even get out their first “Give me a W!” As a four-year cheerleader at Northwest Area High School in nearby Shickshinny, Pa., freshman Keri Skvarla cheered for her alma mater in a fair share of rival gymnasiums. However, she said the atmosphere and seating arrangements at Del Val was unlike any road game she had ever experienced. “It was very rowdy,” she

said. “The fact that they had us sitting right in front of the Del Val student section made us all uncomfortable.” In that situation, though, there was only thing the cheerleaders could do. “You just have to go out there and be as loud as you possibly can be,” said Meribeth Derkach, a sophomore co-captain on the team. “Obviously they had a full student section to support them, but we tried our best to get our crowd to be as loud as they possibly could.” Trying to be louder and prouder than Del Val’s hundreds of fans proved to be an extremely challenging task, however, as the gymnasium’s small size contributed to a deafening echo that effectively silenced the Wilkes squad. Despite the noise level, the

cheerleaders heard the snickering behind them. Two girls mimicked Derkach after she cheered “Go Wilkes!” “With cheerleading in high school, the other schools expect you to be there and they give you respect,” Skvarla said. “Whereas at Del Val, it was a bunch of crazy college students who didn’t really care about anything else other than their team winning their game. They could be as disrespectful as they wanted and they knew that they could get away with it.” Sure, there were times the cheerleaders would have loved to turn around and returned the favor to Delaware Valley’s fans, but they knew that they couldn’t. Like the basketball team on the court, they had to do their best to tune out the noise and focus on the task at hand. The six women managed to keep themselves calm, cool and collected throughout the entire game – even when the Colonels trailed by as many as 11 points in the second half. “I’ve always been taught that if your team is losing by

even a bigger margin than that, even by like 20 or 30 points, you’re still going to cheer,” Derkach said. “You’re still going to be the best cheerleader you can.” As the clock ticked down in the second half and the Aggies began to pull away, the men on the basketball team became visibly frustrated. In attempt to get his team back on track, Rickrode called a timeout. That’s when the cheerleaders sprung off the bleachers and into action – and Delaware Valley didn’t like it one bit. The Aggies made every attempt to silence the support coming from the Wilkes squad – blaring Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2” during their routine. And whereas cheerleading squads usually make a pregame agreement to alternate performing during timeouts, Del Val’s significantly larger squad wouldn’t give Wilkes any solo time. The easy thing to do in that situation would have been to just give up. It was obvious that Delaware Valley didn’t want them in their building, especially when they started chanting “This is our house!” late in the second half. But packing it in would have gone against the team’s fundamental creed. “Give it all you got,” Skvarla said. “We yell as loud as we can and show the crowd that we love doing what we’re doing and that we’re not going to let numbers stop us. We know what we’re capable of and we love to prove that.” “It’s kind of cool being a part of a team like that,” Derkach said. “You’re cheering for your university. That’s what I think about. I’m representing Wilkes University, I’m not representing myself. I have a uniform on that says Wilkes. It doesn’t say Meribeth across the front of it. I just think, ‘If I was looking in the crowds,

what would I want to see coming from our cheerleaders?’” The cheerleading team isn’t allowed to frown, which can be pretty difficult if Wilkes is losing by a significant margin. But Derkach said preparation plays a huge role in the team’s ability to remain positive throughout games. As soon as they do a cheer or complete a stunt, they hustle off the court and plan their next move. That way, Derkach said, everyone is on the same page and the team doesn’t have to scramble to get ready at the last minute. Practice plays a huge part of the team’s preparation too, as the team rehearses stunts, dance routines and cheers during their weekly sessions with coach Jenna Strzelecki. “She always makes us try to work harder,” freshman cheerleader Lauren Para said. “She always wants us to have new pyramids. We think we’re good, but then she tries to make us better by always having new things. She never settles. We end up getting better as a team because everybody tries harder and then we achieve more.” The practices are especially important for the first-year Wilkes cheerleaders. Skvarla explained that it’s difficult to adjust to a new system of cheerleading after doing the same thing for her entire four-year cheerleading career at Northwest, almost like a professional athlete getting traded to a new team. “It’s tough, because it’s all new cheers and you have to learn everything all over again,” she said. “There’s still some that I don’t know. From Northwest to here, it’s the same colors – blue and gold, so it kind of worked out good there, but I do get confused sometimes.” Skvarla admitted that she once left out the “K” in the traditional “What’s that


“You want to have something that looks extensive, but is easy to execute. A successful stunt has everybody involved, as many people as possible. It includes the most number of individual stunts in it. Usually there’s extensions or lifts in the stunt, but basically a sucSophomore cheerleader Meribeth cessful one is one that doesn’t Derkach explains the key to fall – one that stays up there completing successful stunts. and looks impressive.” spell?” chant. Derkach said that she’s mistakenly started cheering for her high school mascot, the Bears, at football games. After all, they’re only human. “You just keep going,” Skvarla said. “People mess up all the time in cheerleading. It’s just recovering from it.” If one of the cheerleaders should stumble, she knows she has seven other girls on the team that will back her up. Skvarla said that the team is extremely close and their friendship doesn’t start at tip-off and end when the final buzzer sounds. Three of the cheerleaders competed on the same Winter Weekend team and Skvarla and teammate Jess Short take a Zumba fitness class together at the WilkesBarre YMCA. “We’re like a big family,” Skvarla said. Although the group is small in numbers, Para said that actually works to their advantage. “Everything works better when everybody’s close and gets along,” Para said. “This is the first cheerleading team I’ve been on where there wasn’t any drama. Especially in high school, everybody would fight all the time. It was so much more enjoyable because nobody fought this year.” Nonetheless, there’s always

one cheerleading topic that is the subject of many debates – is it a sport? They all said it is, but at this point, it’s also beating a dead horse. “I would consider cheerleading a sport, but to other people I won’t say that because it’s a lost cause,” Derkach said. “It’s not worth fighting for. You’re creating more drama about cheerleading and cheerleading is not about the drama. It’s about cheering.” In the cheerleaders’ experience, the main naysayers are often people who have no knowledge of cheerleading whatsoever – the kind of people that wouldn’t know a base from a back or a basket toss from a cupie. And like Del Val’s student section wasn’t going to switch allegiances at halftime no matter how many times the cheerleaders yelled “Go Wilkes!,” people who don’t know the ins and outs of cheerleading are unlikely to switch sides in the debate. However, the cheerleaders deal with rowdy rival fans and naysayers in the same manner. “You just have to keep your composure and not think about other people,” Derkach said. “Whatever they say is not going to change what you do.”


Whether its rowdy opposing fans or people who don’t consider them athletes, Wilkes’ cheerleaders deal with a lot of negativity But they’ve l...