PAWTUCKET — Ask Jessica McLaughlin her highlight as a Tolman High cheerleader in the early 2000s, and she answers immediately.
“We went to the AmeriCheer National Championships at the Disney Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla. my senior year (2003), and we actually made it to the finals,” the still-perky McLaughlin explained. “We ended up fifth in the country out of 18 teams, and I still think about it. I remember the pressure of making it to the final round, and the feeling of accomplishment that came with it.
“When we were selected to finals, we knew we'd be competing again the next day,” she added. “We were so excited; we were all crying and tackling each other. The whole experience was just incredible. That's a trip I'll never forget.”
Nowadays, McLaughlin, a 2003 THS graduate, is on the other side, coaching her alma mater's cheerleading contingent. She claims the rush she got when her Tigers captured the Large Division title at the Rhode Island Interscholastic League State Championships last Sunday at the Providence Career & Technical High School field house was both different and the same.
Really, it's not that far-fetched.
“They're both awesome, but winning states is a better feeling,” she stated after informing her 20-member squad of the details of their visit to the New England Interscholastic Cheerleading Championships, slated for this Saturday at Lawrence, Mass. High School.
(Tolman will perform in Division II at the regional competition).
“For me, being a coach, I love seeing them succeed, and them feeling that sense of accomplishment,” she added. “It just means more. I don't know why, but it does.”
In the Large Division state finals, the Tigers racked up 163.75 points, 3.19 more than second-place Mount Hope High of Bristol and 6.75 better than third-place Woonsocket. In the process, they also snagged their third consecutive state crown.
Still, it was hardly easy to come by, mentioned McLaughlin, who in 2004 and 2005 assisted her mentor, Kristine Cook, before becoming the head honcho in 2006.
“We were the second seed at states this year; we were ranked below Mount Hope,” she indicated. “Going into that meet, I discovered that – due to unforeseen circumstances – we were going to have to change our two-and-a-half-minute routine at the last minute. We pulled together extra practices to get the team prepared.”
McLaughlin revealed athletic director John Scanlon had informed her on the Monday before states that a girl would be unable to perform, so she began scrambling to figure out the best times for added workouts.
“I immediately reworked the whole routine on a piece of paper,” she said. “My assistant (Chelsea Worthington) and I went through each segment and replaced the missing girl with an alternate, and changed it. That was pretty stressful.
“When we ended up winning, I wasn't astonished because, with all the obstacles we've been faced with all season and overcome, I knew this would be just another hurdle we'd leap over,” she continued. “These girls do well under pressure, and they just responded. I think they like being the underdog, fighting for the top spot.”
A few seconds went by, and McLaughlin turned from earshot of her group, which was working on its routine for the upcoming New England event.
“I have to admit, I act,” she grinned mischievously. “I can't let them know that I'm nervous for them. Honestly, coaching is so much more nerve-wracking than being on the floor.”
Girls reacted differently to earning the “Three-peat.” Leah Campanelli, a senior co-captain with Arianna Jaron, claimed she had a serious case of nervous butterflies prior to states, but also felt confidence.
“I kinda knew we had a routine that could win; we hit it, and I thought we had attitude,” she said as McLaughlin turned and chuckled. “You could just feel it, with all the people (in the crowd) yelling. I don't know how we knew it, we just did.
“We had finished first last year and the year before, and we had to work 10 times harder this time because we lost some seniors to graduation, and others chose not to come back. We had to practice three hours three times a week, and they were really exhausting, but we knew we didn't have a choice if he wanted another title.”
Offered Jaron: “When they announced it, I just laid down on the mat and started crying. It's been a really tough season. My three previous seasons seemed a lot easier than this one. I guess that's because I was younger and I wasn't a leader. I just looked to the seniors and followed their leads.
“Having a lot of new people, we were a younger team, (and) we had more novices,” she added. “We weren't used to that. During the year, we had four regular meets at Exeter/West Greenwich, Cranston East and Warwick Vets, plus we hosted one. We also went to four invitationals, and those were at La Salle, Mount St. Charles, Mount Hope and Portsmouth.
“The only one we finished first at was the one in Portsmouth, though we also won the Grand Champions division at Mount St. Charles, but there were only three teams (in the field).
“This has been a real journey, no question. We had really good, tough practices the week of states, despite the fact we had to replace a couple of girls. We all had to step it up a notch to fill the spots (in the 20-girl routine) and make it as good as it ended up being.”
This will be the first time Tolman ever has attended the New England meet; it's doing so, McLaughlin said, because the AmeriCheer competition has diminished in size, so she chose to remain “more local.” The Tigers qualified for the regionals after winning the Rhode Island Large Division crown, as did Mount Hope.
“When I found out we were going to New Englands, I was very excited,” maintained sophomore Meghan Maynard. “This is only my second year of cheerleading, and I've never been to a meet this big before. It's going to be a brand new experience for me.
“Last year, as a freshman, I learned from the team that it takes a lot of time and effort to win, to do well. We had a lot of obstacles, but we were just the kind of team to push through, not let anything get in our way.”
Explained junior Rebecca Echevarria, whose twin sister Miranda also is a team member: “We had a hit and cold season, and it was rough. We had to work extra hard to get back to where we were. I've been on this team since my freshman year, and we've won states every time, but this is more satisfying.
“We weren't winning left and right (this season) as we had in the past. It was also a very emotional time for me, for us, at states because the scores were so close.”
McLaughlin stated that once the single bases (or one girl standing on the shoulders of two others) nailed their routines, she knew the Tigers had sealed the championship.
“I'm ecstatic about the New Englands, as I've never been,” she offered. “When I used to go to Nationals, I knew what to expect; with regionals I don't. Maybe that's why I'm not as nervous. When we get to Lawrence, maybe I'll get more nervous. But, for now, I'm just worried about the girls performing as well as they did at states.”
According to Miranda Echevarria, there's no need for concern.
“I love my team and my coaches, so anything they ask of me, I'll do it,” she laughed. “Our goal is to place in the top three. If we do that, I can guarantee you I'll start crying.”
The Tigers consist of senior co-captains Campanelli and Jaron, as well as classmates Reanda Watson and Danielle Ogden; juniors Crystal Ritcey, the Echevarria sisters, Ashley Clark, Breanna Roullier and Ashley Hessler; sophomores Maynard, Emily Zammarelli, Mackenzie Plante, Caterina Estrela, Ivelissa Avila, Alexandra Aguiar, Carlina Baptista and Patty Santos; and freshman Cristin Chiaverini and Katherin Marchese.