NHS cheerleading interim coach Dina Hannigan, center, is pictured with team captains, from left, junior Charlotte Lawrence, senior Sammie Payne, senior Lola Rolfes and senior Gabriella Ananias/ Credit: Needham Observer

Needham High School cheerleaders are practicing for Saturday’s New England championship tournament at Worcester State University. “We’re excited,” said interim coach Dina Hannigan. “I think we’re going to do well.”

It’s been quite a school year for the cheerleaders, and for Hannigan, who coaches junior varsity field hockey in the fall and is co-coach of the girls rugby team in the spring. 

The cheerleading job became open in December — midseason, as cheerleaders compete in both fall and winter — and Hannigan was asked to step in on an interim basis. “It was a unique situation,“ she said. “I was a little nervous because it had been a long time since I cheered.”

Hannigan said the girls have shown huge improvement this winter, qualifying first for the Division One south regionals where they finished third. That qualified them for last weekend’s state tournament, where they did well enough to qualify for this weekend’s New Englands for the first time in several years.

And make no mistake, Hannigan said, cheerleading is a real sport.

“It’s much more advanced, much more competitive” than it was when she was cheerleading, Hannigan said. “There’s tumbling involved, lifting when we’re doing pyramids, it’s really taxing on the body. They are true athletes.

“They are some of the hardest-working people I’ve coached,” she said of her team. “They are resilient, they are close to each other. They push themselves to be their best every single day.”

Hannigan said the team’s primary goal was to qualify for the state tournament. Getting to the New Englands was better than anyone expected.

“I’m really, really proud of them,” she said. “Every single one of them. They have done all the heavy lifting. I’ve been there to empower them. 

“That’s my big coaching philosophy, for whatever I coach, is to empower.  If the team knows that you really care, and they buy in, they’ll do anything. And if a coach believes, the team will achieve.”

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