WEST HARTFORD — Things were different when Danielle Simon was a Hall High School cheerleader a decade ago.
Her coach was a parent volunteer who served primarily as a supervisor while the students came up with choreography, Simon recalled. And going to nationals would have been a pipe dream.
Simon, 27, graduated from Hall in 2004 and this year, her first as a coach, she has led the Hall cheerleading squad to a national competition in Walt Disney World on Feb. 8 and 9.
The team is the first in the West Division of the Central Connecticut Conference and one of few teams in state history to qualify for the Universal Cheerleader Association’s National High School Cheerleading Championship since the contest’s inception in 1980, according to Simon.
They will compete against about 30 other teams in the small varsity non-tumbling division, and between 200 and 300 teams from around the country will compete overall.
“I didn’t know if I wanted to coach” at first, Simon said on Monday before practice, “but when I decided to do it, I was going to make them as successful as I could.”
And she did, big-time.
“This is the competition all the teams in the country want to go to,” Simon said.
Madelin Gomez and Jazmine Collado, both seniors who have been on the team since they were freshmen, said the team has changed in many ways this year.
The cheerleaders feel more support from the school community and the “football families,” Gomez, 18, said.
“We work out so much more; it’s more athletic,” said Collado, 17. “It’s completely different.”
The students — 24 girls and two boys, 12 of whom will be competing in Florida — practice hard, every day after school and on Saturdays. Simon, who was a cheerleader at Hofstra University and studied exercise science and sport performance, has incorporated weight lifting into practices.
Even without a weight training session at Monday’s practice, the work was rigorous.
The team ran through partner stunts and the Hall High Warriors cheer, over and over again. Every time someone made a mistake, they started over, with Simon providing pointers.
And sometimes, she just got to the point: “Stop. Again,” she said after a messy run. “Guys – hit that. We have to do it in two weeks.”
Not only do they have two weeks to learn their moves, but also to raise the remaining $5,000 of the $15,000 in trip expenses. Before practice, students came up to Simon with plastic baggies full of money, raised through sales of rubber bracelets that read: “I support Hall High Cheerleading.”
To supplement money from the school, the students have written fundraising letters to families and businesses, held events at restaurants and run 50/50 raffles at school sporting events.
“They really want this,” Simon said. “I’m so proud of them.”
Gomez said she hasn’t yet wrapped her head around the idea of competing in Florida.
“I’ve always watched videos” of the national competition, she said. “To be able to go, I still don’t believe it.”
By Julie Stagis, Hartford Courant.