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Riverhead grads lead University of West Georgia to national cheerleading title

In the world of competitive cheerleading, the University of West Georgia stands at the top as one of the most dominant programs at the collegiate level. In the past two decades, the all-girl and coed teams have combined to win 27 championships at UCA Nationals — the pinnacle competition for a team.

That history is not lost on the current athletes, who strive to live up to the legacy set by those who came before them. It’s an added pressure each time they step onto the mat in a sport where one mistake can derail all their hard work and training.

“We just kind of kept that in the back of our minds on the hardest days,” said Destiny Leonard, one of two former Riverhead High School students who compete on the all-girl team, along with fellow Riverhead graduate Melissa Blackmore-Wigley.

Ms. Blackmore-Wigley said the alumni and support system at UWG allow the program to continue to flourish at such a high level.

“If it weren’t for the alumni, then we wouldn’t have such a strong program,” she said. “Our coaches also have an effect on that where they’re really good at recruiting and keeping their eye on people and creating a family atmosphere for everybody.”

UWG arrived at this year’s UCA Nationals in Orlando in late April as the favorites once again. The two Riverhead grads who helped launch the Blue Waves program to its greatest success during their years together on the varsity cheerleading team, worked side-by-side in the same stunt group for UWG.

Competing in Cheer Division I, UWG posted the top score in the semifinals and again during finals to win the championship, reclaiming a title they had won in 2019 before a disappointing second-place finish a year ago.

The win was the culmination of a grueling nine-month season filled with unexpected road bumps during the pandemic as they navigated quarantines, COVID tests and isolation from many of their classmates outside the cheer team.

Melissa Blackmore-Wigley, left, and Destiny Leonard not only compete in the same stunt group for the UWG all-girl cheerleading team. (Courtesy photo)

Even though UWG had the highest raw score in the competition — meaning the difficulty of their routine allowed them to reach the highest potential score — the athletes didn’t know for sure how the judges would ultimately score their routine.

“You never know walking off the floor because the judges do judge us harder than any other team because we are West Georgia,” Ms. Blackmore-Wigley said.

Ms. Leonard said that made the moment when they found out they were champions all the sweeter. 

“I think the moment we won there were a lot of emotions,” she said. “Happiness, excited, relief, the whole nine. We were jumping, crying, screaming the whole time. It was definitely a special moment for, I think, anyone who witnessed it.”

Ms. Blackmore-Wigley added: “You think back to the morning workouts, the extra stunt sessions, the practices, the waking up early to get extra reps, just the bond between your team and everything like that.”

Both women work in tandem during routines: Ms. Blackmore-Wigley as a main base and Ms. Leonard as a back spot in their stunt group — two positions that both require tremendous strength.

This season marked the third for Ms. Blackmore-Wigley, who was a junior, and second for Ms. Leonard, who transferred to UWG. While listed as a senior, Ms. Leonard said she’ll have one more year as she finishes earning credits that did not transfer from her prior college. That will give both women one more season together to add to UWG’s legacy.

Reflecting on their days at Riverhead, neither woman could have envisioned ending up winning a national title at UWG. Ms. Blackmore-Wigley said a coach who had competed for West Georgia, Toniann Venza, helped her find a home at UWG. She said she wasn’t sure where she wanted to go to college or what she wanted to do. But Ms. Venza believed she had the talent to compete on the UWG cheerleading team.

“I literally laughed in her face and I said I don’t think I’ll ever make that team,” Ms. Blackmore-Wigley recalled. 

The championship UWG cheerleading team. (Courtesy photo)

Ms. Venza, who was in Arizona at the time, arranged travel for Ms. Blackmore-Wigley to visit the school. She picked her up at the airport, gave her a tour of the campus and introduced her to members of the team and coaches. Soon after, Ms. Blackmore-Wigley realized she had found a home.

“Cheerleading kind of keeps me on my feet and without it I don’t know where I’d be,” she said.

Ms. Leonard had reached out to her former high school teammate about cheerleading. Ms. Blackmore-Wigley invited her down to attend an open clinic and the two stayed together in her dorm room.

“She pushed through and made the team,” Ms. Blackmore-Wigley said.

Ms. Leonard said the coaches saw the heart she had and how she’s a strong stunter, even though tumbling was not her specialty. She saw herself as having the opportunity to learn new skills and improve as a member of the program, but never pictured herself as a national champion.

“A lot of times that ring means a lot, but it’s the work and the memories that you get from this program that matter the most,” she said.

Both women credit their high school coaches, Stephanie Piraino and Lauren Berry, for their motivation and inspiration over the years. Ms. Leonard recalled how both coaches played a huge role in her life, particularly in her younger days in high school.

“Definitely the things that they did for me and Melissa were a big impact on who we are and where we are today,” she said.

Both women felt that support from home when they competed at nationals.

“We have such a great support system,” Ms. Leonard said. “Even before awards, we had people texting us and reassuring us that no matter what the outcome was, we still won in their book.”