WESTERLY — Three cheers for the Westerly Pee Wee Football League cheerleaders. Or more aptly, 37 — one for each of the years that the league has had a cheerleading program
The league and its football program started in 1964 and in August started its 50th year. The cheerleading program began in 1977.
The Pee Wee cheerleaders do two very different things. They support the football teams during the regular season and playoffs (August to November) by raising spirits of the players and fans from the sidelines and by providing pre-game or halftime entertainment. They also compete with other league squads in a conference-wide competition.
The cheerleading and football programs are governed by the same league board and officers. They perform and compete within the same conference — the Southern New England Youth Football Conference (SNEYFC), comprising leagues from Westerly and about a dozen southeastern Connecticut towns.
But the two programs have their own coaching staffs and compete under distinctly different rules and regulations promulgated by the conference.
The four cheerleading squads mirror the four football squads, but differ somewhat in their squad-size and age/grade limitations. The conference does not limit overall squad size but does cap squad sizes in its cheering competition to 25.
Cheerleading levels largely are driven by grade but with some age limits. The Mini team (no travel or competition) can range from kindergarten to second grade at ages 5-7. The Micros are 3rd and 4th graders under 11. Juniors are 5th or 6th graders and 10-12. Seniors are 7th and 8th graders and 12-14.
Origins & leadership
The first Westerly Pee Wee cheerleading squad in 1977 cheered for both the Senior and Junior football teams. The cheerleading program has expanded over the years as the football program has, with a separate cheerleading squad at each level.
Liz Dobson, Mary Lou Canty and her daughter Michelle have been the program leaders
Dobson was the founder and first coach. She coached and directed the program for 25 years (1977-2001). She concurrently and successively coached cheerleading at Chariho High, Westerly High and Babcock Middle and in the Westerly Youth Basketball program. She also is a certified cheerleading judge, served as an SNEYFC executive and founded the R.I. Cheering Coaches Association.
“Joe Vacca (the league president) stopped me in a parking lot near our homes and asked me if I wanted to start a Pee Wee cheerleading program,” Dobson said. “It was the winter of 1976. I had been a cheerleader at Chariho High and would graduate from CCRI the next spring.
“I was interested. I came to the Pee Wee field and met with him and Rich Cappuccio. They said they wanted to start a cheerleading program, as long as they didn’t have to deal with the kids and their parents. I agreed (laughingly).
“It took me six months to pull it together. I went to camps and clinics. We started with 12 cheerleaders and fielded one team. Sharon Gencarelli and Marguerite Liese were my assistant coaches.We also competed in the conference championships — the only year of now 36 years that we didn’t finish in the top four.
“I was with the program for 25 years. It seems like yesterday. I was fortunate to have Mary Lou and Michelle Canty to take over. There is a huge longevity in our program.”
Dobson met Mary Lou Canty early on and the two have been joined at the hip ever since. Canty coached and helped manage the Pee Wee program for 32 years (1981-2012).
Before high school, Mary Lou Canty cheered for four years in the Catholic Youth Organization basketball program. She started coaching there while attending Westerly High, became a wife and mother and then resurrected and founded the Westerly Youth Basketball cheerleading program in the late-1970s and directed and coached there for nine years. She subsequently coached at Babcock Middle and with the Westerly High junior varsity.
“I met Liz when I was looking for coaches to help restart the Westerly Youth Basketball cheerleading program,” Mary Lou Canty said. “I put an ad in The Westerly Sun. She was the first person that called. We’ve been together ever since.
“My daughter, Michelle, directed the Pee Wee program after Liz left. We taught each other.”
Michelle Canty was a mascot for the Westerly Youth Basketball program as a second-grader and then cheered there for four years. She cheered at about the same time for the Westerly Pee Wees (1981-84). She started coaching the Pee Wee Juniors while she was cheering at Westerly High (graduating in 1989).
She has coached the Pee Wee cheerleaders for 28 years (1985-2012) and is the current director. She also returns this year as the Westerly High coach after a 5-year stint in the early-90s. Like her mother, she also coached cheering in the youth basketball program and at Babcock Middle. “Consistency, dedication and passion in our coaching are the keys for the success of our program,” Michelle Canty said. “We all teach the same. There are 60-plus kids depending on us to be dedicated. Liz and my mom fueled my passion and mine now fuels our coaches.”
The Westerly Pee Wee cheerleading program has been very successful. The tangible measures come from its performance in the conference competitions.
Spanning all of the program’s 36 years, the Seniors have won 12 championships and the Juniors have won 13. Starting in 1990, the Micros also have won 12.
In a span of 13 years (1992-2004) those three squads racked up a total of 27 conference championships. The program swept the Micro, Junior and Senior titles in four of those years (1994, 1995, 1998 and 2004).
“Westerly is the only league in the conference to sweep all three championships in a single year,” Mary Lou Canty said. “We also are the only league having adults as head coaches at all levels. We do have some high school kids as assistant coaches. They can still do and teach the jumps.”
The program has helped serve as a feeder system for Westerly High — to cheer other sports teams and most recently as members of the schools’ competitive cheerleading team. Mary Lou Canty guessed that 80 percent of the Westerly High cheerleaders have been through the Pee Wee program.
“Cheerleading was sanctioned by the Principals Association in Rhode Island and the first high school state championship was held in 1986,” Dobson said. “Westerly High won both the JV and varsity state championships in 1988. About 95 percent of those state champion cheerleaders had started from our Pee Wee program.
“The Pee Wee cheerleaders are taught the basics — the fundamental skills. The high school can take it to the next level. The Pee Wee cheerleaders don’t come in with bad habits.”
The Rhode Island Interscholastic League, the governing organization for all high school sports in the states, established competitive cheerleading as a winter sport about six years ago. In its rules for the sport of competitive cheerleading, the RIIL considers cheerleading for other sports an “activity” and RIIL-sanctioned competitive cheerleading meets and its state championships as a bona fide “winter sport.”
“The issue of cheerleading being a competitive sport has been argued for years,” Michelle Canty said. “That’s now settled.
“We teach the Pee Wee kids the techniques and routines. We also teach them life lessons. A team is like a classroom. A few excel. A few lag. But it takes everyone to make a team. You need to learn how to get along with others, work out problems and communicate.
“Winning isn’t everything. You’re not always on top. The bottom is as important. That surely describes cheerleading.”
Those who have been through the Pee Wee cheerleading program have their own stories to tell. Here are two examples — one from a very early participant and another barely out of the program.
Jackie (Dipollino) Plank started in 1978 (the program’s second year) when she was 8 and in the second grade. She might be considered the poster child of the program.
She went on to be a star cheerleader at Westerly High (under coach Dobson), helped win a state championship, went to the nationals and represented the state at the Hula Bowl in Hawaii.
She earned an 80-percent cheerleading scholarship to Hawaii Pacific College—unique for someone from this region. “Cheerleading became a big part of my life,” Plank said. “It opened up a lot of doors and opportunities for me. I had lots of choices back then. I danced, did gymnastics, played basketball at the Y and softball in the youth league. But some of my best memories are of football in the fall and cheering.
“I’ve made a lot of friendships since second grade. We cheered together all the way up through high school — all those teams, all those games. We went to camps and hung out together. I still talk with most of them. I know their kids. They’re like my sisters.”
Plank has been a first-grade teacher in Marlborough, Mass. for 19 years. She coached cheerleading at the local high school and in their equivalent of the Westerly Pee Wee program. She said she told her children to do what they wanted to do, just as she did. Her college-sophomore son is a level-8 gymnast. Her third-grade daughter cheered for two years, now is into gymnastics and said she might return to cheerleading “when she’s older.”
Olivia Murano was a Pee Wee cheerleader for four years (2007-10), helping to win two conference titles. She also played basketball and softball in middle school and in youth leagues, including two Little League state softball championships.
In her freshman year at Westerly High, she was a cheerleader only during football season, played basketball on the freshman state championship team in the winter and only practiced with the softball team in the spring due to a prior eighth-grade ACL tear that required surgery the following winter of her freshman year.
Murano decided last year to give up basketball for cheerleading. So she spent the fall and winter seasons cheering football and basketball and then being a member of the Westerly High competitive cheerleading team. She played softball in the spring.
“I love cheerleading,” Murano said. “It’s my favorite sport. I did give up basketball. I would give up softball. Cheerleading is where my heart is, my passion is.
“Football cheering is fun — your job is getting the crowd involved, the spirit rising and the team pumped up. Competitive cheerleading is a lot of hard work. I love the feeling of competition. You have to hit everything in like 2 minutes 30 seconds to prove what you can do. If you mess up your part, the routine will fail and the whole thing will crumble.
“The Pee Wee coaches taught us cheerleading skills and also how to be a good leader and role model. Those fundamentals we learned there will carry on.”