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Sharing a chance to cheer

General and special education students join to express school spirit, promot

Posted: September 8, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: September 8, 2013 2:00 a.m.

Valencia High School student Julia Competelli-Pizza, left, leads the special needs members of the Valencia Viking Star Cheer club in practice at the Valencia High School multipurpose room during lunchtime Thursday.

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Staggered in lines, wearing purple-and-gold uniforms and holding position with hands at their sides, the special education cheer club Valencia Vikings Star Cheer held its collective breath.

“We are the Vikings, couldn’t be prouder,” the group screamed in the Valencia High School multipurpose room. Gradually increasing in volume and erupting on the final move, they continued: “If you can’t hear us, we’ll yell a little louder!”

Led by 16-year-old Julia Competelli-Pizza, a former Valencia cheerleader, about 20 students moved and stepped in line, their excitement a pulse that beat to the cadence of their cheers.

It was their weekly practice, and Competelli-Pizza was teaching cheers to new and returning club members. They were prepping for game day.

Last year, the general education cheer squad began sharing half its performance time at junior varsity football and basketball games with the VVS Cheer club, which is in its second year.

The clubhas been so beloved by the crowds that it has grown in members and coaches.

“They get a standing ovation at every game,” said Lydia Bauer, a special education teacher at Valencia High School and the VVS Cheer adviser.

“It makes the audience happy to see the students so happy,” Competelli-Pizza said.

What started out with one coach and one member has grown into about 35 coaches and 55 members, said Competelli-Pizza, who is the club’s president.

And it all began with Competelli-Pizza and her neighbor.


The opening cheer

Breaking in between cheers, Competelli-Pizza stopped to put her arm around Tamara Wilson, the team’s new co-captain and a former special education student.

Wilson, 22, graduated from Valencia High School last year. Some special education students, Bauer explained, are on up to an eight-year track.

“Tamara and I have been neighbors for about six years,” Competelli-Pizza said, “and one day last year, she came over to my house and asked if she could be a cheerleader.”

Wilson had wanted to try out for the general education cheer team but could not meet the gymnastics requirements, as many general education students can’t either, Bauer said.

But Wilson still wanted to cheer.

“I was a Warriors cheerleader for my brothers (as a child), and I wanted to cheer again,” Wilson said of her years as a club cheerleader outside of school.

And Wilson wanted to cheer again for her last year in high school, Competelli-Pizza said.

“So to make it happen, we went to administration and started a club,” she said.

VVS Cheer was not Competelli-Pizza’s first experience working with special education students, however, making her an especially qualified high school student for Wilson’s request.

Competelli-Pizza is a member of Circle of Friends, an on-campus club that pairs multiple general education students with one special education student to offer support through a network of people. She has also coached gymnastics for the Special Olympics.

“I want (special education students) to be able to try a lot of different things,” Competelli-Pizza said.

And the students seem to agree.

The club grew quickly, and Competelli-Pizza recruited two more cheerleaders to help coach. Soon they were performing at games, and Competelli-Pizza enlisted the help of others to coach, including Wilson.


Doing ‘so much good’

After running through the next cheer a couple times, Competelli-Pizza waved Wilson forward to the front of the group.

Wearing purple lace-up shoes and an oversized purple hair bow, Wilson joined her friend in leading a cheer.

Momentarily hesitating before calling out the first line, Wilson locked her arms and legs into the correct stance and clapped her hands three times, breaking into a confident smile by the next line.

“So clap your hands and stomp your feet. Tell them you’re the Vikings, and you can’t be beat!” Wilson yelled along with her peers.

Like many of the club cheerleaders, Wilson comes alive while performing.

“I love everything about cheer,” Wilson said. “It’s so fun.”

When talking about her experience, Wilson looked mostly at her hands, glancing up occasionally to flash a bright, though nervous, smile, her cheer bow bobbing slightly.

But when asked if Competelli-Pizza is a good coach, Wilson popped her head up and dropped her hands, instantly falling into a natural grin.

“She’s a great friend,” Wilson said.

Wilson, like many of the VVS cheerleaders, is more introverted on her own. But united by the opportunity to express their school spirit, the students finish their cheers with a confidence that’s both audible and obvious.

“They were shy during the first game,” Competelli-Pizza said.

But after the audience’s continued supportive reaction, VVS cheerleaders are energetic and loud, she said.

“Their self-esteem goes crazy — it’s electric,” Bauer said. “They get to show off their school spirit with their friends. There’s such a strong culture of acceptance — everyone feels the same here.”

Reflecting on her own high school days, Bauer happily acknowledged how much things have changed for special education students.

Because Valencia has the largest special education population in the district, the students have a strong presence on campus and are well-integrated in campus life, she said.

“It’s just such a good time and place for them to be in,” Bauer said. “They are surrounded by so much good.”


Moving forward

Beginning her junior year, Competelli-Pizza worries about what will happen to VVS Cheer when she leaves, which is why she has made such a strong effort to grow the club.

This year, she has been actively recruiting freshmen and sophomore coaches, so they can carry on in the years after she graduates.

“I wanted them to be able to learn from a variety of different coaches,” Competelli-Pizza said.

Though Wilson graduated high school last year, she has come back this year as a volunteer co-captain — because she loves cheer so much.

“She wasn’t done yet,” Bauer said.

Together, Competelli-Pizza and Wilson hope to lead the group until it’s strong enough to last on its own.

Asked of her plans after graduation, Competelli-Pizza said with a laugh: “I want to be a lawyer. But I love working with these guys, and I want to make sure this stays here after I’m gone.”


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