Pinelands Devils Junior Pee Wee Cheer Squad Snags National Title in Disney

Nine Dynamos Catapult Little Egg Harbor Pride
Dec 12, 2018
Courtesy of: Christina Petrauskas The Pinelands Devils Pop Warner Junior Pee Wee cheer squad gathers around the national championship banner and trophies on Dec. 7.

The equation isn’t too complicated. Nine girls. Two minutes, 32 seconds. A 92.88 score. All that adds up to a national championship.

“I was in shock,” said Ashlei Slinchak, describing the moment she and one of her teammates were sent out to the floor of Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex to retrieve the Pop Warner Junior Pee Wee Level 2 championship trophy. “I was trying to process it. We’re a small team of nine girls, and we were the best in the nation at our level. It was crazy and exciting.”

The Pinelands Devils took off for the Pop Warner Cheer & Dance National Championships on Dec. 3, intent on not just competing well, but finishing among the best. Four days later, the Devils delivered the performance they had dreamed of since last year, when they started preparing to move up from Level 1 to Level 2.

“I thought we could do it,” said Cara Stranahan, one of the squad’s main bases, who helped with the lifts and throws. “We had a few doubters on the team, but I kept telling them not to doubt, not to think negatively. We’ve been through a lot together, and we’re a really good team with a really great coach.”

It’s likely coach Christina Petrauskus wouldn’t take much of the credit for the Devils’ national championship, considering she has several excellent assistants in Ashley Rinaldi, Kylie Thigpen, Bruce Stranahan and Holly Chadwick. Still, Petrauskus has challenged her crew all season with routines full of high-difficulty stunts and tumbling, and at every turn the Devils responded with victories.

After cruising through local events before winning the New Jersey state title in October, followed by snatching the East Region crown in November, the Devils seemed destined for a big score on Pop Warner’s biggest stage. In fact, Petrauskus said weeks ago that her squad was ready to hit it big at Disney World. But during warmups early in the morning last Friday, Petrauskus wasn’t totally certain her Devils were ready to go.

“They were struggling with our pyramid, and we almost took it out of the routine,” she said. “We were really early in the schedule, and for a minute there it seemed the girls weren’t going to get the pyramid down. We left it in and hoped for the best, and when the girls got out on the floor, they just killed it. They were awesome.”

From the second they completed their opening half-ups on the left side of the floor, the Devils executed just about everything in their routine as if they had been on that stage a bunch of times. The precision of their choreographed elements was spot on, their back handsprings in total unison, and the timing of their additional and difficult lifts right on cue every time.

All the long practices at a local firehouse, all the hours traveling to competitions throughout the eastern region, and all the hard work leading up to that moment culminated within 2½ minutes.

“There are no words to describe what I saw,” said Petrauskas, who couldn’t help but scream every time the girls completed one of their big stunts. “I can only say it was stunning. In practices, we as coaches had seen so many intermittent beautiful things in our routines, and that’s exactly what we wanted them to do at Nationals. Everything came together, and it was amazing.”

Interestingly, Slinchak, Stranahan, Kayla Harris, Holly Lucas, Kassidy Minor, Keira Jones, Kaylee De Freitas, Isabelle Santos and Arianna Torres weren’t quite as enamored with the setting or what they had just done. Even though they temporarily celebrated, it all seemed like business as usual.

“To us, this stuff is easy,” Stranahan said. “I was acting like this was just another competition. We don’t think about anything but doing what we do; we just focus on ourselves and go out there and perform.”

When the judges’ scores were tallied, the total was a whopping 92.88. The question at that point was whether any other team still scheduled – eight during the next hour or so – would muster routines capable of overtaking the Devils. Of course, nobody in the building found out whether that had occurred until later in the day, about 6½ hours after the Devils took the floor.

“We left the building and were just hanging around outside for a long time,” Slinchak said. “It took forever to find out where we placed.”

Eventually, the Devils were crowned Junior Pee Wee Level 2 champs, their 92.88 well ahead of the New City Rams from New York (83.06), Lake Norman Giants from North Carolina (82.32) and La Mirada Matadora from California (81.90). The little team from Little Egg Harbor wrecked the competition in their division.

But that wasn’t the end of the hardware acquisitions. The Devils’ score was good enough to place them atop the standings for the entire field of Level 2 Junior Pee Wees and Pee Wees, landing them the “Grand Champions” title as well, adding to the trophies they had received for the top choreography (9.2) and stunting (14.68) scores.

“I was very happy,” Stranahan said. “I was so happy I cried. I was really proud of everybody on the team. We pushed through everything and won the national championship. It was amazing.”

And then came time to figure out how to address the good problem the Devils now had – getting those trophies home, since they weren’t allowed on the flight back to New Jersey.

“We had four huge trophies, and I had no idea how we’d get them home,” Petrauskas said. “But somebody at the Caribbean Beach Resort was very nice. She said, ‘Your girls killed it and we’ll take care of it for you.’ The hotel paid for the trophies to be shipped home. We can’t thank them enough for that.”

As a result of capturing the national title, the Devils were awarded an all-expenses-paid bid to the Youth Cheer And Dance Alliance Globals world championship competition, which happens to be taking place Jan. 18-20 at Atlantic City’s Ocean Resort Casino. Petrauskas is planning to send her squad, and Stranahan totally believes she and her teammates are capable of reaching the top in A.C. as well.

“First,” she answered, straight-faced, when asked where she thought the Devils can end up amid the field of international cheer squads. “We’re the ‘Fierce Nine.’ We have a little team of nine very strong girls with no fear. So, why not?”

— David Biggy

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