By walking down the basement steps of her home, Hinsdale Central rising junior MaKinna Neal instantly can feel like a sixth grader because there stands a giant team trophy accompanied by a flood of memories.
In December 2011, Neal and her Hinsdale Falcons cheerleading teammates captured the Illinois Recreation Cheerleading Association state championship in the medium division at the Sears Centre.
“Actually, it’s really cool. It’s 3-feet-tall and the biggest trophy in our house,” Neal says. “Every time I see it, it shows me that hard work pays off.” Cheerleading has been a way of life for Neal, older sisters Mackinzie and Michaela, and their mother, Kim.
For Hinsdale Central cheerleaders, similar bonds often start with the Falcons, who also offer youth football teams for second through eighth graders.
This season, 25 of the Red Devils’ 31 cheerleaders for the fall and winter seasons are former Falcons.
Nine are still together from that sixth-grade championship team of 23—Neal and fellow juniors Mia Balice, Rene Barnard, Camey Calzolano, Elizabeth Groenewold, Claire Livingston, Juliana Mejia, Bella Salerno, and Laine Williams.
“I’m really surprised we’ve all stuck with it,” Williams says. “It’s a really great sport. I think it’s because of our winning sixth grade year. We wanted to keep doing it, to keep experiencing that joy.”
“I’ve seen all of these girls cry from injuring themselves and cry from laughing so hard,” Barnard adds. “Thinking of losing them (with graduation) is going to be a definitely sad thing for all of us.”
Coaching for Falcons cheerleading is all-volunteer. Kim Neal, formerly its longtime director, and Kathy Smith were the championship team’s parent coaches. Teen coaches from Hinsdale Central were Kate Duffy, Melanie McGarrah, Michaela Neal, Sidney Peard, and Jessica Weed.
Commitment was learned early. Because all Falcons competed every meet, they could not miss more than two practices the entire season.
“For most of us, that’s where we started and learned all of the basics,” Balice says.
“It’s where we get close to the town and make new friends. I’ve been close with them from the start. We all motivate each other. It’s not an individual sport at all. You have to work as a team and get to know one another or else nothing will work.”
The group began in 2009 as fourth graders and finished second at state. Among 12 state qualifiers in 2011, the Falcons reached the three-team finals with the lowest advancing score, but only the final routine determined the champion.
The Falcons spent the following morning before finals in Hinsdale practicing at the Zion Lutheran Church gym.
“It sounds cliché, but it was a lot of blood, sweat, and tears,” Kim Neal adds. “It was tough. It’s physical, and girls would get hurt. This particular group, especially the girls still cheering, was very tough.”
The cheerleaders agree the finals routine was among their best. To this day, however, the championship remains a welcome surprise.
“Honestly, it was a huge shock,” MaKinna Neal says. “When they didn’t call us for third or second, I have the video and we look up in disbelief. Then we all started freaking out and jumping up and down.”
The giant trophy became the equivalent of professional hockey’s Stanley Cup, spending more than a week in each cheerleader’s possession. Each member received smaller individual trophies. In her basement, Williams has hers displayed with a framed photo and article. Balice still has her good luck teddy bear given by the coaches back in fourth grade.
“I remember once they announced the championship team, the coaches started crying. It was great to see (them) as passionate as us,” Barnard adds.
All of them attended Hinsdale Middle School. Many continued with the Falcons through eighth grade, but some left the group as seventh or eighth graders for independent cheerleading clubs that offered higher-level national competition.
Balice, Barnard, Calzolano, and Livingston attended ICA All- Star Cheer. They and Williams were among those who returned for Hinsdale Central’s cheerleading team as freshmen.
“It was a really hard decision but I did because of school involvement, cheering for other sports,” Livingston says. “It was kind of an individual, kind of collective (choice) at the same time. We wanted to be together.”
The bonds only have strengthened. The cheerleaders express that through trust, confidence, cooperation, motivation and, of course, teamwork.
Other Hinsdale Central cheerleaders who were Falcons are seniors Shannon Ging, Karsen Kolnicki, Caroline Konstant, Caroline Langan, Maggie Moeller, Elizabeth Osmundson, Brantly Riedl, Sophia Slone, Alaina Smith, Andrea Soto, and Abby Ward and juniors Grace Doyle, Caroline Konstant, Maddie McMahon, Kelly Nash, and Jillian Wallace. Other team members are seniors Jessica Wojczynski and juniors Katya Antipov, Adaugo Nwankpa, Chinaza Nwankpa, Israel Rosales, and Nathalie Wight.
Brittany Butler recently was hired as the new Hinsdale Central varsity head coach for both seasons.
“If you have a hard-working personality but also know how to work with others, that’s a big thing,” MaKinna Neal says. “(The Falcons) taught us how to be a teammate and work hard but still have fun.”
Hinsdale Central never has participated in the Illinois High School Association-sanctioned competitive cheerleading state tournament, which began in 2006. Pride and some nerves are on the line, however, whenever the Red Devils perform, especially at school pep assemblies in front of the entire student body.
“Falcon performances were a little more nervewracking because there were judges. I enjoy (pep rallies) more because you’re performing in front of people you know and you want to show them what you can do,” Balice explains.
“Our goal is to keep some (team) traditions while adding new ones that (Butler) will bring. Another goal is to hit perfect routines at our pep rallies.”
This season, many former Falcons also are back where it all began.
Only they can volunteer as teen coaches and 10 Red Devils will do so for the Falcons—four from the 2011 title team.
“I like being back. It’s the same place and almost a way to relive my Falcons experiences,” says Barnard.