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St. Hubert Cheerleading: 72 girls, two national titles and a year of high-flying excellence

In competitive cheerleading, one false step, one missed mark, can separate lifelong memories from lifelong regrets. Two years ago, the national championship hopes of St. Hubert Catholic High School for Girls’ varsity cheerleading team literally came tumbling down when the routine from one of their five stunt groups did.

Instead of a championship, the perennial contending all-girls Catholic School from the Holmesburg section of Philadelphia finished fifth in states, and fifth in nationals.

This year, the St. Hubert Bambies reversed that formula at the Large Varsity School National High School Cheerleading Championship at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla. Trailing a rival from Tennessee by one-tenth of a point entering the final competition, St. Hubert was on spot and on its game, coming from behind to win the Division 2 national championship.

This year’s championships attracted 1,125 teams across 33 states. Championships were awarded in several categories and many levels, with Large Varsity being one of the most competitive and sought-after championships. Teams were judged on their stunting and tumbling skills, crowd-leading ability and overall performance.

``It comes down to tenths of points often, which is very stressful, and it's worrying about every single detail of the routine,’’ says Lisa McNesby, the longtime head coach of St. Hubert’s  cheerleading program. ``Sometimes you have someone or some groups that just have a bad day.’’

McNesby brought 72 St. Hubert girls to Orlando in February, representing three teams: Varsity, JV Brown, and JV Gold, which competes in the Non-Tumbling Division. Gold also won a national championship, and Brown emerged with that ever-present lesson, that this is a competition of inches, when the smallest step can determine the outcome.

``You get two and a half minutes to perform,’’ says McNesby, a former Penn State cheerleader, who was named Pennsylvania coach of the year for the 2019-20 season by the National Federation of State High School Associations. ``Sometimes you're really lucky and it's your best performance of the season when it counts the most. Sometimes it's not.’’

There were a few reasons it was not in 2022, but for Hope Bucci, one dwarfed the others. A freshman who had broken her foot that fall, she struggled to perform consistently. She suffered a couple of missteps and not one but two falls. ``Not the right placement under my feet,’’ she says. ``And then it just kind of came down.

``I was very crushed. I remember feeling so defeated right after it happened. I finished out the rest of the routine with a smile on my face. But as soon as the routine stopped, I broke down into tears. I felt like I let my team down.’’

She wasn’t alone. Hope was the flyer for her stunt group, one of five stunt groups from St. Hubert that compete for the title. Samantha Kinniry, a junior, was her “back spot” in 2022, and again this year. As the name implies, the flyer is the person airborne during a stunt, staying tight throughout and landing correctly. The back spot, standing behind the front two cheerleaders,  help dip or jump the flyer into the bases hands by supporting and pushing her into the air.

``We made it our prime goal this year to hit our stunt for us and everybody that had suffered with us last year,’’ Samantha says. ``The second my stunt (team) hit this year, we all knew that we were winning.’’

While the competition is scored holistically, awarding points for everything from crowd-leading to fight songs to enthusiasm, championships are often won or lost through the execution of stunts and tumbling. 

Says Hope, ``Even the day before semis and finals in Disney, my stunt routine was inconsistent.  We were working at nine o'clock at night trying to figure out new things for the stunt, we were so worried. I didn't want to be the thing to let my team down again. I was just really determined to get through the stunt and hit a perfect routine.’’

And when they did… Bedlam. Joy. A celebration made all the sweeter by the challenging journey to get there.

It was the second time in school history that the Varsity team won a national championship. The JV Brown team (which includes the tumbling aspect) has won five. Overall, the championships by the JV Gold and Varsity teams this year were the eighth and ninth national championships won by St. Hubert overall. All have come under McNesby and her staff, which includes her brother Paul Ballentine, Mary Kate Kenny and Kristen Mahon.

The cheerleading program has become a prime draw for students at one of the two remaining Catholic girls high schools in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Add in a trio of state titles, and another three near-miss runner-ups in states, and it’s easy to see why expectations are as sky high each year as the flyer whose successful landing often dictates whether they are fulfilled or not.

``To see that that group specifically hit their skills the best they could, it was so meaningful,’’ says McNesby. ``And I mean -- it sounds crazy-- but probably life changing for their confidence. It was really a great day for them.’’