It all began innocently some 14 years ago, when cousins Jamie Guedes and Justine Esteves loved the cheerleading that they did during their days with first the Kearny Generals organization – that was headed for years by Justine’s uncle Tony – and Kearny High School that they wanted to form their own a competitive cheerleading organization.
“We decided one day to go to a cheerleading camp,” said Guedes (whose last name is pronounced GETS). “We talked to some of the best coaches there and thought we could make a competition team. We did a lot of research and went to other competitions. We went to coaches’ clinics. We were learning.”
Needless to say, the early days of KGC (which stands for Kearny General Cheerleading) were not overly successful.
“The first few years were a little rocky,” Guedes said. “We didn’t know a lot. We didn’t win much, but we were learning.”
By word of mouth, more and more girls wanted to be a part of KGC. In fact, so did some boys.
“We started to pick up speed,” Guedes said. “We started to get kids from other towns interested.”
The participation numbers increased to the point where KGC was able to field teams on three different levels – minis, juniors (ages 14 and under) and seniors (ages 18 and under).
“We never really went out searching for kids,” Guedes said. “We always have kids who come up and ask about signing up.”
Guedes said that KGC asks for a minimal registration fee for the competitors.
“It’s a very expensive sport,” Guedes said. “Our parents really help.”
One of those parents is Stephanie Comp, whose daughter, Madison, is a long-time member and a current member of the senior team.
Comp recalled a day in 2018, when KGC was pushed to the limit.
“We went to Rhode Island for a tournament and because we needed another tournament to qualify for the United States finals, we packed up and drove that day to Camden for another one,” Comp said. “And we won there as well.”
Comp said that the KGC organization is one that she’s proud to be a part of.
“It’s not just cheerleading,” Comp said. “It’s family. It’s about developing relationships.”
The relationships grew even stronger recently when KGC went to the ESPN Wide World of Sports facility at Walt Disney World in Orlando to compete in the national championships.
“It’s the Super Bowl of cheerleading,” Comp said.
Lo and behold, KGC prevailed once again, taking home the top prize as national champions. It marked the 16th time that KGC has won a national championship, easily making the organization the best unknown local sports team.
Just to qualify for the nationals in Orlando, KGC had to defeat 50 other squads nationwide by competing at the “Reach The Beach” tourney in Virginia Beach.
“It was very stressful,” Guedes said. “We had to get a bid in Virginia Beach in order to make it to Disney.”
And that didn’t come easy.
“We had our hiccups,” Guedes said. “One of our girls got injured, so we had to call in for another team member to come down to Virginia. He didn’t know the routine. We had to teach him (Liam Malley) in the parking lot, so he knew his spots.”
The adversity was not over there.
“We went straight to our practice mat time and another girl got hurt,” Guedes said. “So we had to rework our routine to make it all work. Everyone was so nervous. They all talked about doing the best they could do and they all had perfect routines.”
The routine that Senior Black, the eldest KGC squad, performed was called “Blackout.”
The team earned the bid to get to Orlando and once again “performed their magic,” as Guedes called it.
However, because of pandemic rules, the team was not allowed to stay in the arena to await their fate and their scores.
“It was really nerve wracking,” said Amaya Souza, a nine-year veteran of KGC who will begin classes at Rutgers in New Brunswick, majoring in exercise science and physical therapy, in a few weeks. “We knew how close it was. Either we won or we go home. That’s how close it was. I had a lot of faith in myself and my teammates.”
The team all remained in a house that was set aside to accommodate the team during the tournament.
“The kids all sat around, watching on their phones, waiting to hear,” Guedes said.
“We knew that Jamie and the other coaches put together a routine that had that kind of ‘Wow’ factor,” said Izabella Heller, a 10-year member of KGC who will be a senior at Kearny High this fall. “We needed to ‘Wow’ the judges.”
The 18-year-old Heller said that she became interested in competitive cheer after watching her older sister Stacey compete.
“It really made me want to do it,” Heller said. “It was a really good experience.”
What made the KGC performance even more impressive is that the organization doesn’t have a place to regularly practice. Some of the workouts are done outdoors in the cold of winter. But there are no mats to practice on.
“We basically fly blind,” Guedes said. “We don’t even know how good the competition was. We knew that one of the teams was from Florida.”
Guedes said that KGC was aided tremendously by the local Veterans of Foreign War location on Belgrove Drive, which allowed KGC to use their field.
“They are always great to us,” Guedes said.
Kaelyn Gerena is an 18-year-old senior-to-be at Kearny High.
“It feels like I’ve been cheering forever,” said Gerena, who joined the program after her older sister, Leah Pereira, joined. Pereira now serves as a coach. “It feels like it’s been centuries.”
“Competitive cheer really takes up a lot of your time,” Gerena said. “But I thought we could put together a performance that everyone would enjoy. I truly believe that a lot of people don’t take it as seriously as football or baseball. But it takes a lot of time and effort. It’s really something to be proud of.”
Gerena said that she wants to be an actress someday.
“This really helps to build up our confidence and our personalities,” Gerena said. “I also have a passion to write. But cheering really helps me. I’m a cheerleader and I helped to make people happy.”
Souza is pretty sure her competitive cheering days are done.
“It feels amazing to go to Disney and come out on top,” Souza said. “I never thought I’d get that chance, never in a million years. It’s more than I could dream of. For me to end it that way is amazing.”
The others are already planning for the 2022 competitive cheer season. After all, there’s a winning tradition, much like the Kearny boys’ soccer team or the girls’ softball team. They’ve been undefeated since 2019.
“We’ve flown under the radar for so long,” Souza said. “We never get the recognition we deserve.”
Guedes said that her coaching staff – another cousin Jennifer Esteves helps out – are preparing for another possible trip to Disney in 2022.
“We’re the best kept secret in Kearny,” said Guedes, who strictly volunteers her time when she’s not working for a local dermatologist. “This is what we all wanted.”
The other KGC Senior Black members include: Amaya Nalvarte, Angelina Alvariza, Brianna Aranda, Estella Pesantez, Jessica Soryal, Lesley Santos, Melanie Rodriguez, Melody Torres, Mya Torres, Myckayla Chipelo, Natalie Chipelo, Pedro Correa, Rene Lominy, Sofia Disbrow and Tatiana Staciuk.
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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer
Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.
It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.
In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.
In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.
He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.
During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.
Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.
Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”