Amber Ennis and Mimi Pessagno, both recent graduates of Saint John’s Catholic Prep in Buckeystown, will be leaving for college with an extra sense of accomplishment and some bling on their fingers.

They both served as captains of the competitive cheerleading team at Saint John’s, which recently placed first in the Novice Varsity Division at the U.S. Finals.

“We went out on the mat and we gave the best routine we’ve ever given,” Pessagno said Monday. “We wanted to end it on a high note and we ended it on the best possible note we ever could have.”

On Monday, the team gathered in the main hall of the school to receive their championship rings. Big, silver and shiny, the rings represented a year of hard work and dedication, and for many, it was a perfect gift before the last day of school.

The competition cheer team at Saint John’s is separate from the football and basketball cheer teams and is made up of 13 girls and one boy. There is at least one student from each high school grade level in the group. The team practices almost year-round for a competition season that starts right after Christmas break and lasts for about two months.

This year, the SJCP Cheer team placed first at the American Cheer and Dance Academy’s annual Reach the Beach competition, which provided them a fully paid bid to travel to Virginia Beach and compete in the U.S. Finals.

The journey was not easy or smooth. There were snow days that prevented them from practicing, and girls who left the team a few weeks before the first competition had to be replaced quickly.

“That’s very hard for a competition team like us, because every person is a vital part,” Pessagno said. “It’s not like a basketball team, [where] you take one person off the court, you can put someone else in. You need to learn the routine and how to stunt, and that’s all very specific.”

And during a warm-up for one of their first events, one of the team’s best stunt performers, sophomore Miranda Pires, sprained both her ankles.

Miranda was determined to perform, though, even with an injury.

“There was no one else that could stunt, and I knew that if I didn’t stunt they wouldn’t be competing. ... So I felt like I needed to go out there and perform,” Miranda said.

Ennis and Pessagno both say the team wouldn’t have made it all the way if Miranda hadn’t pulled through that day.

According to head coach Mary Coajou, the team also wasn’t able to practice as much as their competitors due to scheduling conflicts. Some of the team members participated in spring sports and they also lacked enough practice space.

“I didn’t know going to U.S. Finals ... I knew that if they gave it their all and the stunts went. But it’s a gamble every time you run a stunt. It’s got to all hit,” Coajou said.

But the students prevailed through obstacle and injury and according to Coajou, performed a flawless routine.

“They just knocked it out of the park,” she said.

Now, as national champs, the girls and coaches hope their win will bring more recognition to the sport and how much dedication and hard work it takes to be No. 1, as well as spark more interest in joining the team.

“There’s no bench in cheerleading,” Ennis said. “It’s a lot of hard work for two minutes and 30 seconds.”

And for seniors Ennis and Pessagno, leaving their cheer family is one last obstacle they will have to face.

“Half the girls on the team, I’ve been with them since middle school,” Pessagno said. “I’m going to miss it so much. Everyone on the team is really a family.”

Follow Katryna Perera on Twitter: @katrynajill.

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