St. John Vianney cheerleading coach Jayne Shalkowski has a simple philosophy.
“If you’re going to be successful, you have to be strict,” said Shalkowski, who has been the head cheer coach at the Catholic high school since 1979. “There has to be discipline, hard work and dedication. If you’re not going to embrace the principles of a successful program, you’re not going to be successful.”
And with St. John Vianney’s squad, success starts with the right attitude.
“We keep it positive,” said senior Casey Griffin, one of three captains on the team. “We don’t allow drama here. Everybody has to work together, and if there’s drama somewhere it’s just not going to allow us to work together the way we’re supposed to. We deal with drama real quick.”
Part of that attitude involves a measure of humility as well.
“I’m not going to say we’re the best around because there are a lot of great cheer programs in the Shore Conference,” said Shalkowski, who also is a guidance counselor at the high school and doubles as the cheerleading coach at Montclair State University. “Our first priority is to support our other sports programs, whether it be through doing a pep rally, decorating the locker rooms, or cheering for them. Our girls just work really hard and strive to be their best every time out when they do a routine.”
Asbury Park Press readers voted the Vianney cheerleaders as the Shore’s best squad in a recent online poll. St. John Vianney captured 59 percent of the vote, more than twice that of Pinelands Regional (23.3 percent). Southern Regional received 14.2 percent of the vote, followed by Barnegat’s and Wall’s 2.4 and 1.1 percent, respectively.
Beside Griffin, Lizzie Hess and Marissa Diroma captain the squad made up of 30 varsity cheerleaders, including Nicole Gregorio, Christina Papa, Ashley D’Angelo, Breanne Rutkiewicz, Alex Mullarkey, Cassidy Baker, Dominique Gluck, Tara Kennedy, Carley Perine, Tori Cedar, Nicole Sherman, Kristina Curren, Francesca Canzoneri, Kirsten Schwedes, Megan Greene, Nicole Magnan, Ashley D’Angelo, Catherine Quinn, Amanda Gaft, Nina D’Amore, Megan Mascitis, Rosa Aives, Arionna Chionchio, Nicole Galante, Jackie Coccozziello, Emily O’Sullivan and Nicole Halloran.
Shalkowski’s daughter, Staci, is the team’s assistant coach.
“We’re more like a family,” Hess said. “We have really close bonds on our team. We’re always together.”
Vianney’s crew has some of its best bonding experiences during the summer, when the girls practice twice a week on some 120 sideline cheers and then have a two-week cheer camp in the Poconos at the end of August, during which they rise at 6:45 a.m. and do a lot of drills and in-camp competitions around three meal periods per day.
“Cheer camp is the most fun,” Diroma said. “It’s a lot of hard work but we’re together 24 hours a day for two weeks, and it’s just like being with your sisters all the time. We also have team sleepovers, movie nights and go to the beach together. We’re always laughing.”
But when it comes to the cheering, Vianney’s squad is all business. Shalkowski’s squad has been the New Jersey Cheerleading & Dance Coaches Association Mega Varsity state champions three years running and were the Non-Public group champs in 2010 and 2011.
In March, the squad won the overall championship at The Champion Cup national competition hosted by Champion Cheer & Dance on the campus of Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.
“The feeling of winning is indescribable,” said Griffin, adding that winning a state championship is the primary goal of each season. “When you’re standing around waiting for the results to be announced, it’s really an anxious moment. But when you’re announced as champions, and everybody goes crazy, it’s just awesome.”
Hess said the squad’s history of winning has lent itself to an expectation each year within the school.
“What we do is a big thing to our school,” she said. “We definitely have developed a reputation for winning in cheer, and there are a lot of schools out to get us because of that. But it motivates us.”
Also setting the St. John Vianney cheerleaders apart from some of their competitors are the philanthropic efforts of its team members, who throughout the year are involved in various community service projects and fundraising efforts, including hosting a competition each February through which they raise funds for breast cancer research.
“Our girls go to two nursing homes in Holmdel and get the residents involved in a sort of mock football game,” Shalkowski said. “They bring a football and the people throw it around to each other and all that, and the girls do cheers for them. They decorate the activity room, bring snacks and really do it up nice for the people there. It’s a lot of fun and they get a lot out of it.”
Diroma said cheerleading is such a huge part of her life that she’d likely become a lifelong couch potato without it.
“Without cheer, I’d be on my couch watching TV all the time, being a loner,” she said. “I’d have no friends, except Mr. G, my cat.”