What makes a coach special?
Alexa Ciesinski, second-year head coach of the back-to-back Division Three champion Whitman Vikings Poms, believes it is not so much about winning or losing but seeing her team being “inspired” and “growing.”
Kristi McAleese, the equally successful two-time champion Whitman Vikings Cheerleading head coach, believes instilling a “family atmosphere” and “fostering friendship” among teammates are the keys to a successful program.
As for Ciesinski's Poms squad, the journey over the past two years has been gratifying.
“I really love seeing other people grow and learn”, says Ciesinski.
And for the Viking Poms at times this past season the team got down on themselves and did not really believe that they were going to succeed.
“They were coming out of a pretty rough season, and there was a lot of drama and a lot of people dropped off the team and stuff. And even for me, I spent a few days with them when I came back and I saw what they were able to do in three days. And so I just started pushing them.”
And Ciesinski started incorporating new choreography and even team trips to the weight room. The result was a second consecutive first-place finish in the county Division Three and a move to Division Two due to their performance.
Ciesinski described the metamorphosis of her team, saying, “And I said you’re going to try this and they all kind of laughed at me and were kind of like there’s no way, there’s no way. And three weeks later the whole team were able to do the technique. And they started going to the weight room, and they were able to do weightlifting, which they had never done before. And they were able to be a lot stronger than they ever thought they’d be. That’s the most rewarding thing for me.”
Ciesinski, a 2009 alumnus of Whitman and a former Viking Pom, has yet to see much losing since becoming head coach of the Viking Poms. Poms have a long season from August to March, and the teams rigorously train two hours a day, five days a week.
Their schedule has them constantly striving to be the best team in their division. And Ciesinski, who has a sister who placed in the top 50 of “So You Think You Can Dance,” spends many hours during her weekend choreographing and strategizing for the Viking Poms.
“For them to be able to see that they can succeed--maybe they doubted themselves? And then, they realized they had the capacity all along to get there,” said Ciesinski. “Pushing a new turn or leap that you didn’t even think you were capable of doing. I think that’s what inspires them. And to meet that goal. The work ethic that comes. To push yourself like that. That’s what brought them success.”
Ciesinski, who believes that the move to Division Two will entail much stiffer competition, feels that anyone can find reward, saying, “Anyone can say ‘oh, wow’ I had no idea I was that good at that. Or, I had no idea I’d ever be able to do that. That’s a rewarding experience.”
“There’s no drama … They’re happy and in the end, children happy, parents happy.”
As for Kristi McAleese, the equally successful Whitman Vikings cheerleading head coach who is in her seventh season, she has seen her program become a powerhouse in the county. McAleese said that the Whitman program had not won anything significant over the past 20 years prior to her arrival.
Yet, after a second- and a third-place finish three and four seasons ago, McAleese has had her Viking cheerleaders win back-to-back Division Three Montgomery County championships.
The two first-place championships have the program nervously waiting to see if they will be granted a move up into Division Two. The County will handle the notification later this week.
But whether or not the Viking cheerleaders move up, currently, the County does not participate in the state competition, which has many in the cheerleading community exasperated, including McAleese.
McAleese is part of this vocal charge that is pushing to see Montgomery County cheerleading programs competing in the state competitions if not eventually national competitions.
Yet McAleese separates the politics of cheerleading competition and the politics of moving up to higher divisions from coaching her cheerleaders. McAleese is most concerned with the continuing to build up the Vikings program, a program based around community, family and friendship.
“For me, it’s honestly about friendship. I pride myself on (knowing that) we’re not just the Whitman cheer program, but we’re the Whitman cheer family,” said McAleese.
McAleese knows that like a family, her team is moving forward when the teammates are relying on one another.
“I pride myself on creating a family bond of trust. And faith in each other. And we can count on each other. Because I know that is something my high school coach did for me.”
McAleese, a cheerleader in middle school, high school and college, still has significant bonds with her former teammates, saying, “My high school girlfriends, cheerleading girlfriends, are actually all my best friends, and my bridesmaids at my wedding this June.”
And what is good for McAleese in terms of her friendships she believes is good for her cheerleaders. McAleese has seen many of her cheerleader alumni carrying similar bonds that she had with her teammates.
“We grow together. We cry together. Relax together. Just kind of do everything together.”
Since the cheerleading competition routines are only two minutes and 30 seconds long, whether they win or lose, McAleese said, “The reward comes from the minute the routine ends and they know they’ve nailed it.”