While the CIAC, the Connecticut Department of Health and local school boards wrestle with how to handle fall sports, two sports that run from the fall through the winter are ramping up despite limits on how they do it.
Cheerleading and dance begin during the fall in conjunction with football and move into the winter when teams begin competing and working towards conference and state championships.
While teams have begun training this fall with new rules in terms of how many athletes can participate at a time and limits on what can be done, the future of both the football season and the winter competition season remain in limbo.
“Kids are so resilient, they are more adaptable than adults. I have never seen them so excited to condition. They were so happy to be together, doing what they love, and being back with their friends,” said Sue Bridges, the coach of 2019-20 Class LL champions Newtown. “Cheer is a two-season sport so the kids spend a lot of time together even in the off season. Once winter season ends, the kids take a little time off, and then we’re back to tumbling and practice. I do think the time away from friends, school and sports has been difficult for the kids.”
Cheerleading is one of the more physically demanding sports; injuries can be severe and hours of team training are necessary to achieve safe routines.
Right now, because of limits on contact and the size of participating groups, the teams cannot practice stunts, which include pyramids, tosses and various one-and-two-legged stunts.
“The new guidelines have definitely been challenging,” said Shelton coach Christine Pavone. “One high impact has been not being able to stunt. This is a big part of what defines cheerleading. However, we can still do individual tumbling and work on sideline cheers, jumps, motions and dance.”
“The athletes are adjusting,” Pavone said. “This has become their new norm. It was hard to adapt, and they wanted nothing more than to hug their teammates and get back into their daily practice routine. But now they know what is expected and are taking what they can do and making the best of it. They have created new routines and safe ways to make cheer fun again. Coming to practice with a mask and using sanitizer has become part of our routines.”
At practice, athletes must work in cohorts of 10 people and practices are being held outdoors. Teams are hoping to be able to move indoors by the end of the month and have full teams working together.
The CIAC did not issue specific guidelines for cheerleading for the fall, but teams are following CIAC guidelines for other fall sports, DPH guidelines and recommendations by USA Cheer.
USA Cheer recommendations include keeping stunt groups together in their cohorts, refraining from mixing and matching bases and tops from different groups and keeping stunt groups distanced from other stunt groups when possible, according to the USA Cheer website.
At Stamford, athletes check in before practice by scanning a QR code on their phones after filling out a self-assessment. Practice is then held in cohorts of 10 and with athletes wearing masks unless they are running.
“I feel like they’re adjusting well considering this is the only option we have,” said Stamford cheer coach Di’Azia Keel. “They’re upset they can’t actually perform and do things they normally would be doing. Cheerleading is a contact sport and it’s hard not being able to practice that because we can’t physically touch each other. Luckily, we still have sideline routines and everything else they’re able to do.”
Dance teams also begin in the fall with competition in the winter.
Masuk won the state dance competition last winter but has not yet started this fall due to COVID-19.
“At this time, we’re scheduled to hold tryouts next week. We’re going to follow all of the CIAC and district protocols and mandates that are put forth,” Masuk dance coach Nancy DePietro said. “Once we have our team, we’re going to practice and prepare as if we will be allowed to attend the home football games this fall and competitions in the winter. The most important thing for me is to make sure the dance team still gets to experience a sense of team even though there are restrictions that prohibit normal activities.”
Much like football, cheerleaders are left training but not being able to work on the skills needed the most.
Also like football, cheerleading is left waiting to see whether there will be anything for them to participate in come the Oct. 1 planned start to return to the fields.
“Honestly, I think the unknown is the biggest challenge,” Bridges said. “We’ve had to adapt a different mindset. As a coach, I know myself and most of my cheer coach friends are planners, and this year has not really allowed us to do our normal planning and that can be stressful. We just try to remain positive and be thankful for another day with the kids.
“Right now, we’re managing just fine. There’s a lot work to do for the fall, preparing for football games, working on sideline cheers, conditioning. This is all working fine in small cohorts. Towards late fall, when we begin to focus on the winter and competing, naturally we’re going to be thinking about stunting and preparing a competition routine. That involves stunt sequences and pyramid work which obviously involves contact. That will be difficult to do in smaller groups.”
Despite the lack of certainty, teams are coming together in ways coaches did not anticipate.
“Working in these cohorts has enabled the girls to bond on a smaller level with each other. They’re getting more one-to-one type bonding, and I could see this being a definite positive if and when we can meet as a whole team again,” Pavone said. “One unexpected outcome is the respect level coming from each girl. They’re more respectful to each other and the coaches. They’re also more understanding and accepting to any obstacles that may pop up. They know we’re all in this together, so they’re doing everything they can to work together. Just being able to see their teammates and be part of a team is the ultimate reward.”