North Rockland cheerleaders, the National Cheerleaders Association national champions, practice their routines at the High School Extension in Garnerville Feb. 6, 2018. Peter Carr/lohud
GARNERVILLE – When North Rockland cheerleading head coach Lauren Bunyan Gould unexpectedly died last December at the age of 32 due to complications from cystic fibrosis, it left a hole within the program that had won a National Cheerleading Association championship the year before.
Despite guiding North Rockland to its second national title in four years on Jan. 28, first-year head coach Tanya Kelsch said she still has a long way to go before living up to her predecessor.
“It was some huge shoes to fill that I don’t even think I’ve begun to partially fill them yet,” Kelsch said. “It’s difficult to not have her to call, to ask what to do and how to do things, so I have to figure them out on my own.”
Kelsch was in the hospital when Gould died, and said she still often has spiritual conversations with Gould when she feels she needs a little guidance. One of the biggest takeaways Kelsch learned from Gould was to not be so hard on the team.
North Rockland cheerleaders practice at the High School Extension in Garnerville Feb. 6, 2018.
(Photo: Peter Carr/The Journal News)
“Just remember that they’re children,” said Kelsch, who described herself as a “strict, to-the-letter type of person.”
The program had weathered so many twists and turns over the past 13 months that it was understandable they didn’t know what to expect entering this year’s NCA championships in Dallas.
“I don’t want to say we went down there thinking we were going to lose, but we weren’t sure what we were going into,” Kelsch said.
North Rockland edged Prestonwood Christian Academy (Plano, TX) — which had won the event the past two years and won a national title in another division in 2015 — by 0.1 points to take home the emotional win.
The Red Raiders won in the Large Advanced Coed High School division in 2015.
The team competes with a logo of Gould on the wrists of their uniforms, and several girls have “LBG” or “Rise up” — Gould’s trademark phrase — written on their sneakers during competition. Senior Victoria Caldiero, a three-year varsity veteran, said the past year has been a whirlwind for the team.
Victoria Caldiero, front, during a North Rockland cheerleader practice at the High School Extension in Garnerville Feb. 6, 2018.
“It was pretty crazy to have everything kind of thrown at you — a new coach, a whole new team full of eighth-graders and freshmen. It was just a big change,” she said. “The first month or two, practice was hard, quiet, but every competition we went to, everything was in memory of her and everything we did was for her.
“We used her passing to light a fire under us and be great,” Caldiero said.
Fellow senior and three-year varsity veteran Danielle Disclafani said the team was obligated to push forward in Gould’s memory. “In a time of loss, we knew we needed to really step up and keep her legacy alive,” she said.
“I don’t think they’ve ever really moved on,” Kelsch said of the team. “We pulled (Gould into) everything that we do.”
Senior Camille Untener has been cheering in the North Rockland program since she was six in the Pop Warner ranks. Utener, who was on junior varsity the past three seasons, said Gould made it a point to treat the entire cheerleading program like one unit.
“It helped us become equals,” said Utener, who said she kisses her wrist and prays to Gould before competing. “We didn’t think of each other as superior, like seniors versus freshmen. We all came together and we’d help each other out.”
North Rockland designed patches in memory of Gould that will be sewn to the inside of their championship jackets, Kelsch said. The patches feature two large angel’s wings surrounding Gould’s name, which features a halo on top of it.
North Rockland cheerleaders learned perseverance through watching Gould battle cystic fibrosis. Even with the madness of the past year, it almost shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Red Raiders found a way to rise up when it mattered most.
“This season has been crazy,” Caldiero said. “This win was exactly what we needed.”