Cheering championship contains controversy

WHEELING – The Ohio Valley Athletic Conference crowned its cheering champions Saturday at WesBanco Arena.

However, it’s a squad that didn’t win that’s been drawing the attention since the competition.

A year after finishing runnerup to St. Clairsville in Class 4A, Buckeye Local Panthers returned to the competition with a performance that drew a standing ovation from the large crowd on hand.

St. Clairsville placed first in the division again this year.

The reasons for the standing ovation, however, were varied. Some were highly impressed with the Panthers’ on-the-court routine, while others were standing to support the Lady Panthers’ alleged decision to knowingly break several rules in a ploy to take out frustration based on falling short in the 2012 competition.

According to OVAC Cheering Director Libby Shepherd, Buckeye Local broke eight OVAC rules, many of which are utilized by the National Federation, and published on the OVAC website.

“Buckeye Local broke rules with the intent to prove a point to the OVAC,” Shepherd said in a statement. “I understand that they were upset that they did not place first (in 2012), but 25 other schools didn’t either.

“Those 25 schools went back and worked harder to do better this year,” Shepherd continued. “They didn’t set out to mock the 22-year old OVAC cheering competition.”

The Panthers were docked for numerous infractions, including not having every member of the squad taking part in the routine and removing their hair from a pony tail.

It’s been alleged the Buckeye Local squad, in essence, threw its routine, but Buckeye Local School District officials said that wasn’t the case.

Mark Miller, Buckeye Local superintendent, said he has been in touch with Panthers’ coach Lynda Piergallini since learning about the routine and the reaction its drawn.

“I have talked with Piergallini about this and I feel that it was never her intention to disrespect the OVAC tournament,” Miller said. “These girls worked hard all year on this routine, and from what I have learned they went out with the intent of having fun, there was no malice intended.

“I have watched the YouTube video and, from what I saw, the response from fans was positive,” Miller continued. “In fact, Lynda told me that she was shocked when the squad received a standing ovation following the performance.”

OVAC officials, however, don’t share the same concept of having fun.

Tom Rataiczak, the conference’s executive secretary, said he realized there were some violations immediately. Rataiczak was in attendance at WesBanco Arena and was watching the Buckeye Local performance and noticed how “powerful” the Panthers came out early in their routine.

“I was standing there and thinking, wait, they can’t do that or that,” Rataiczak said. “I could see six or seven violations in a heartbeat. I am not well-trained in all rules of cheering as set through the National Federation, but I knew the (OVAC) format and knew some of the things being done were illegal.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Rataiczak said. “By that, I mean in my 50 years of following (high school) athletics and my 15 years with the OVAC.”

Buckeye Local’s decision to present its routine did not affect the outcome of the competition, but that’s not the point in Rataiczak and the OVAC’s eyes.

“I think we have to be very, very cautious and make sure we take a good look at this,” Rataiczak said. “We can’t say to the schools that it’s OK to knowingly break the rules and think you’re going to get away with it.”

Rataiczak indicated the OVAC’s executive board will definitely look at what transpired at it’s next meeting, which is slated for Feb. 27.

“We are looking at it,” Rataiczak said. “A decision won’t be made until the board meets. We don’t want to make a knee-jerk reaction, so we need to sit and really take a look at it.”

There’s a chance Buckeye Local could come up with a self-imposed punishment and submit it to the conference. Rataiczak points out the final decision, though, will be made by the executive board.

“We would take and consider what Buckeye Local came up with, by all means,” Rataiczak said. “But, would we follow it? I’m not sure because it’s up to the board. We have superintendents, principals, four from each state, who are great people. These are people who are actively involved at their respective state level and they’ll make the final decision.”

Miller and other Buckeye Local officials will continue to look into the events of last weekend before making any sort of final decision.

“At this point, we will have to consider all of the information and study the situation further,” Miller said. “Then we will make a decision as to if we want to continue to compete in the OVAC championship for cheerleading.”

The judging of competitions such as cheering, pageants, gymnastics or ice skating are often times questioned because of the decisions are subjective.

According to Rataiczak, the OVAC cheering competition utilizes five judges for scoring and two safety judges. The highest score and lowest score are added together and averaged. The remaining three scores are added to that averaged score for the raw score.

From there, the safety judges make their deductions based on violations such as safety, rules or time violations. Once those subtractions are made, the team has it’s actual score.

“You can argue subjectivity and objectivity, but a person can’t single-handedly factor into the results,” Rataiczak said.

It’s in the judging where some of Miller’s concerns lie.

“I admit that I am unfamiliar with the cheering competition and the rules, but considering the recent events, I feel that there needs to be more transparency where the rules and judging are concerned,” said Miller. “It may bring to light some things that need to be revisited.”

As for the future of the event, which has dealt with its fair share of controversy over the years, Rataiczak doesn’t see it getting to the point where the OVAC steps away from crowning cheering champions.

“The thing is you take school ‘A’ for instance, it comes every year, participates every year, comes back the next year and the kids just love to compete. For them it’s not about winning and losing,” Rataiczak said. “If we took the event away, it would be taking away a chance for those kids to compete and showcase their talents.”

The OVAC has a band showcase in the fall that’s not judged, but offers a chance for the marching bands of the conference to display their talents. Could it get to that point for the cheering squads?

“Cheering is a sport in West Virginia, and I believe it will be eventually in Ohio,” Rataiczak said. “So, for the fact that you have even half the teams who are taking part in a state-certified sport, I don’t see it getting to the point where it’s not judged.”