Youth Cheer Program Celebrates Five Decades Of Rooting For the Gridders And Competing
This is the second in a series of articles covering Newtown Youth Football & Cheer as the organization celebrates the 50th anniversary of the youth program.
Cheerleading and football go together like peanut butter and jelly.
The girls on the sideline have been part of Newtown’s youth football and cheer program from day one, dating back to the start in 1969 when it was run through Pop Warner before joining American Youth Football & Cheer. In the September 5, 1969, edition of The Bee, the front page detailed the start of the inaugural football slate and included the following sentence: “A squad of cheerleaders will be there to lead the way.”
They have been cheering in town ever since, supporting the football players from the sidelines, and in the case of the older, teenage squads, piling up appearances at national competitions in recent years as the routines and stunts have become increasingly challenging.
Kate Geerer (Sclafani) cheered in the town’s youth program from 1973 to 1978 before joining the squad at Newtown High School until her graduation in 1982. She raised her children in town and continues to live here, working in the Newtown Parks & Recreation office.
“I really can’t say enough about it, especially when I look back at the photos,” Geerer said of the youth football and cheer program. “A lot of us are still in touch.”
“Some of my cheer family was Ingrid Kotch, Kelly Strasburger, Meg Kennedy, and Kim Brehm. I am still in touch with Kelly and Ingrid via Facebook, and Kim and I are still best friends,” said Amy Mangold, Newtown Parks & Recreation director, who cheered in the youth program for one season as a fifth grader in 1975.
Mangold played softball during subsequent fall seasons and did not cheer in high school; she went on to play basketball for Indians at Newtown High School but was also a school Indian on the sidelines, supporting the football team along with the cheerleaders. This was prior to the school mascot becoming the Nighthawk. “That was a lot of fun, and my experience with (Newtown Youth Football & Cheer) helped me to be confident and prepared for the additional cheering at the football games,” Mangold said.
Cheerleading has changed a lot throughout the decades.
“We tried to get the crowd involved,” said Geerer, adding that cheerleaders in the 1970s and early ‘80s used megaphones, and there was more crowd interaction than these days, with cheerleading somewhat resembling gymnastics and being about a performance rather than leading the crowd, she added.
“Cheering then was really about cheering loud and having the matching hand claps and steps to go with it. We had small solos to cheer for our player if they scored or did a great play or assist. There were not a lot of gymnastics, skills, and tricks. Some cartwheels and small pyramids but not the stunts and tricks that cheerleaders do now — very different,” Mangold said. “I had so much fun as a youth football cheerleader. I made new friends, and we had so much fun meeting together and being a part of the program. We took it seriously but had a lot of fun. I also remember we were very self-guided and had the support from our coach but were able to create and cheer with the standard cheers. We did not have a lot of cheer parents involved and had so much fun being creative and responsible with the guidance of Marcy Shpunt (sister of longtime youth football coach Jack Shpunt), our coach.
“I remember us all feeling like a big, happy team. There was not a lot of drama or parent involvement — lots of great adult volunteers; easy schedules; and ability to be creative, supportive, and have a lot of fun,” Mangold added.
Mangold also has fond memories of everything from cheerleader footwear to practice time and their game time responsibilities.
“I loved getting saddle shoes — they were so cool to wear — and I have fond memories of practicing at Hawley school and getting our favorite lollipops and snacks after practice. It was a fun time because we were still kids at heart but loved being around the football players and supporting them. We were randomly assigned a male to cheer for. I remember being assigned one of the Gibbons brothers and trying to find out which one he was that I was cheering for. That was fun. We all were so excited to see who we were cheering for after the assignment,” Mangold said.
Diane McCabe is the program’s current vice president of cheer and has been involved with the program for a dozen years, also coaching some of the teams each season, this year serving as the D14 coach. McCabe’s sons, Ken, Eric, and Rob, played football and her daughter, Katie, cheered in the program.
Although McCabe did not cheer, she recalls it was mostly about rooting for the home team and waving pom-poms when she was growing up.
“Now the stunts are really intense. It takes a lot of athleticism and strength,” McCabe points out.
Susan Bridges served as cheer coordinator of Newtown Youth Football & Cheer from 2004-13 and coached teams throughout that time, also taking over the Newtown High School program in 2007. As a former cheerleader herself, having entertained on the sidelines in the Pop Warner organization in the 1970s, Bridges can attest to the fact cheerleading has come a long way over time. Bridges cheered for Torrington’s program starting at the age of 8 and continued through high school, also in Torrington, graduating in 1982. The girls did jumps, splits, and cartwheels, but no tumbles or the complex maneuvers today’s cheerleaders perform, she recalls.
“I show the girls what we did for stunts and they just laugh because they can’t believe it,” Bridges said.
Cheerleaders these days can be seen flying up into the air as teammates toss and catch them. They do flips, inverted stunts, and other acrobatic displays of athleticism at halftime of games and during competitions.
When Bridges was cheering, the setup for practices and competitions was not the same.
“We didn’t use mats. We practiced outside all year — never went inside, never went in the school,” Bridges said.
Bridges’ daughters, Meredith and Madeline, cheered in the youth program, and Madeline went on to capture a national championship at St Joseph’s University.
Newtown’s cheer squads have gone on to participate in local competitions, eventually moving on to national championships. In fact, since 2012, the program has sent a team to the national competition each year with squads winning national titles a few times during this run of success.
“I attribute it to the dedication to the coaches and of the demonstrators,” said McCabe, referring to former youth program cheerleaders who give back to the younger versions of themselves by working with the girls on routines in practices. There are typically 15 or so high school cheerleaders helping out in a given season, McCabe added.
Bridges was on the youth program’s board when it voted to allow teams to go on from regional competitions and participate in the national competitions. As the youth program has raised its game and continued to serve as a feeder program for Newtown High School, the high school squad has turned into a regular atop or near the top of the South-West Conference year in and year out, winning the SWC title this past year. While championship success has been the norm for cheerleaders of all ages in town for the last several years, it is not all about the glory. One of the things that McCabe likes best about Newtown youth cheer is that everybody is welcomed.
“We will never cut a child. It’s about being involved — it’s about inclusion,” said McCabe, adding that special needs cheerleaders are among those who participate in the program. This tradition runs up to the high school level, with the varsity cheerleaders demonstrating alongside Unified Sports cheerleaders at halftime of games and during regular and postseason competitions.
“I loved it,” said Patty Blood, a cheerleader in Newtown’s youth program, starting at the age of 8 in the 1970s, who continued to cheer in town at Newtown High School. Blood is one of five sisters — Kathy, Cindy, Pam, and Dawn — who cheered and coached cheerleaders in town during the early days of the program.
One thing that hasn’t changed throughout the decades is that the weather can be cold during football season, “but we had really nice big soft sweaters with a large N on them that kept us warm,” Mangold recalls.