National champs have plenty to cheer about

Spirit: Belcamp's Viper All-Stars take top honors in cheerleading and dance at a Florida competition.

April 25, 2004|By Amanda Ponko | Amanda Ponko,SUN STAFF

The Viper All-Stars, competitive cheerleading and dance teams based in Belcamp, back-flipped and cartwheeled their way to the title of National Grand Champions in Orlando, Fla., at last month's AmeriCheer National Cheerleading Championships.

The Vipers have about 120 members, including two boys, split into seven teams - five cheer teams and two dance teams: hip-hop and jazz. All of the teams qualified for the national competition, with the exception of the youngest cheerleaders, nicknamed the pee-wees, who do not compete.

Each team (which does not cheer or dance for a sports team or school) performs a 2 1/2 -minute, fast-paced routine, incorporating cheering, dancing, tumbling and elaborate lifts and jumps. They compete with hundreds of other teams in an attempt to impress the judges with their agility and talent.

The Viper teams that participated in the AmeriCheer competition placed high, including the hip-hop dance team, which won its division and was named national champion.

But the surprise came when the advanced senior "Venom" team, comprised of high school students, scored highest of more than 300 teams in any division, making it the Grand Champion in the all-star cheerleading division.

Jessica Novak, 16, of Bel Air is a member of the Venom team and a cheerleader for almost a decade. She said winning the grand champion title was a triumph she won't soon forget. "It's the best feeling in the world."

The Venom team received jackets with its new title on the back and $1,500 for the Viper gym.

The families, many of whom accompanied their children to the competition, paid for the Orlando trip individually. The cost included a competition fee, accommodations for four days, entrance to Disney parks and a private party at MGM Studios for participants and their families.

Bambi Nevel of Bel Air, an owner and one of eight coaches for the Vipers, as well as a former National Football League cheerleader, said the teams "had a wonderful time in Disney. They're as close as a family," she said. "It's a great venue for a competition."

The Vipers' hard work and dedication are paying off at last, Nevel said. When the organization started in 1999, the team didn't win first place in competition for years. Now, the Venom team alone has earned 24 titles, including 11 nationals and five grand championships at various competitions. "We finally feel like we've arrived," she said. "It's really been our breakthrough year. We've really had wonderful success."

Each team practices twice a week for about 2 1/2 hours, in addition to a 1 1/2 -hour tumbling class. They participate in about a dozen competitions in an 11-month season, building up to national championships such as AmeriCheer.

Kevin Novak, Jessica's father and the unofficial photographer and assistant to the Vipers, describes the team members as "incredibly conditioned athletes."

"I'm extremely proud of [my daughter]," he said. "I can't even put it into words. ... [Jessica] is winning national championships in a sport she loves. You can't beat that."

The Venom team and the jazz dance team also each won a grand championship at the regional Spirit Unlimited's Paramount's King Dominion Spring Spirit Weekend in Doswell, Va., on April 18.

Most of the Vipers live in Harford County, although some travel from Towson, Calvert County and even Pennsylvania to participate in the program. They range from 6 to 18 years old, although that will change when the Vipers add a Special Olympics team and a graduate team - which will be co-ed and open to adults - in their new season, beginning June 1.

Nevel said she believes being a Viper is a great experience "because it's not just about cheerleading. It's about building inner character. We try to be a positive influence and to give these kids a positive start."

Jessica Novak said although competitive cheerleading is hard work and takes up a lot of time, it's not all bad. "I think the friendships make it all worthwhile," she said. "[I] have some of the best times doing this."

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