Jean Marie Romanella instructs Seton Hall cheer squad after a game against Villanova. (Photo courtesy of Ray Floriani)
BY RAY FLORIANI
SENIOR ASSOCIATE CONTRIBUTOR
South Orange, NJ - The first meeting remains vivid. Writing for Hoopville, (which I still do and enjoy) the end of my game stories allowed for a few lines titled ’on the baseline.’ A chance to mention the hard-working spirit groups. About a decade ago, Seton Hall had just defeated Notre Dame in a thriller at Continental Airlines Arena. Seton Hall's cheerleaders smiled as they filed past the crowd. One in particular stood out, extremely thrilled with the victory. I asked for an interview, which she granted.
Between taking deep breaths of the thrill of this narrow win over the Irish, Jean Marie Romanella, a very excited Seton Hall cheerleader, told of wanting to cheer for a Big East school when she watched conference games during her high school days in California. She was set on cheering in the conference, and investigated schools. Her dad is a St. John’s alum, but she fell in love with Seton Hall.
Early in the season, in November, I met up with Jean Marie at a Pirate contest to show a photo essay with one of the cheerleaders featured. She was coaching the cheer squad, and gave me her name on greeting. She looked as if I met her before and her name also sounded so familiar. Later that evening, the details of our initial meeting all came back to memory. A decade later, Jean Marie was back at her alma mater as the new cheerleading coach.
She initially coached recreation cheerleaders in South Orange during her undergraduate days. Later, it was on to coaching high school cheerleaders before the Seton Hall position opened and she got the job. Naturally, she is thrilled with ’coming home’. On this level however, she found there is so much to deal with. “When I cheered, even at Seton Hall, I had no idea how much goes on behind the scenes,” she said. We spoke at halftime of the women’s game on Senior Day. “In high school, there are issues regarding regulations and you answer to an AD, you have that with competitive cheer associations and report to a director, but here on this level, you have a supervisor to report to, who reports to someone else and so on. You have NCAA regulations to comply with as well as Big East regulations. There is so much you have to deal with.” Not a complaint on her part, just a matter-of-fact assessment regarding the demands of the job.
Romanella is just out of Seton Hall a decade. She looks even younger than her already youthful years. That look of youth is not a problem relating to her cheerleaders as a leader. “At first, it was a little of an issue,” she admitted. “But like anything, once your group knows your experience and knowledge, the age does not make a difference. They respect you know what you are doing.”
Jean Marie in the middle row, center, with her squad, again after the Villanova game. (Photo courtesy of Ray Floriani)
A cheerleading coach, not just at Seton Hall, is a part-time job with virtually full-time commitment. Romanella resides in Jersey City, teaches second grade in East Brunswick, then commutes to South Orange. Practices are generally three times a week, two to three hours each. In her group are 27 cheerleaders, three males and twenty four females. On game day, she is on hand early to make sure everyone is present, needs anything and is essentially ready. After the squad stretches, there are meetings before taking the floor. At the half is a chance to relax with another brief meeting, postgame, a wrap-up with the squad. Games at the Prudential Center mean getting everyone organized and on the bus for the commute back to campus. Beside all that is dealt with, you have the team dynamics. “You have so many different personalities on a squad,” she said. “You must deal with the members on a personal and professional level.”
As a coach, she not only instructs and encourages. The job extends beyond that. At times, she is a teacher, counselor, advisor, you name it. “You deal with it all,” she said. “You sometimes have the girls come to you with boyfriend issues, academic issues, all things college students have to deal with. In my position I am at times, a big sister to them.”
The average fan has little idea regarding the demands of cheerleaders. During timeouts, they can see the routines, grace and beauty of the squad. Behind the scenes, the girls’ attractive uniforms give way to sweats and work out apparel. There practices are a demanding endeavor. Cheerleaders incorporate stamina, flexibility and strength to best perform those routines or ‘stunts’. Many hours of practice, in and out of season, are needed. There are dangers as squad members, in practice or games, can fall and wind up with sprains, broken bones or concussions. Cheerleading is a sport. Critics say an activity. Those critics are not fully aware of the demands, It is a sport! Some states have even gone the route of incorporating cheer competitions among schools as a varsity sport.
At times, meeting some of the cheerleaders before games, I mention having known Jean Marie during her undergrad days. The response is highlighted with a simple and unanimous, “she’s awesome....she is so sweet...she is the best.”
In more specific terms, Haley, a senior from Bayonne, New Jersey, praised her coach. “She’s the best,” Haley said. “During my four years, I’ve had several coaches and she is by far the best, knowledgeable and great to work with.” Romanella has a pleasant engaging smile, but when the time calls for it, she can be tough. “She can be a disciplinarian,” Haley said. “If we are not performing or working hard in practice, we will hear it.”
Dominique, a senior from Queens, New York and co-captain as is Haley, noted, “she is the best. She works very hard, is dedicated, and is always there for us.” Both young ladies chimed in adding, “and she is doing all this while planning a wedding.”
Romanella loves cheerleading. She enjoys Big East basketball, but is truly passionate about cheering. Her advice to younger and lower level cheerleaders contemplating cheer in college or making the high school varsity is simple. “Get to a gymnastic gym,” she said. “Get a partner to work on gymnastic routines with. Learn tumbling. These are things you have to know and work on to get to a higher level.”
A college coach, Jean Marie still is involved through cheer groups with those coming up the ranks. She simply exudes passion and enthusiasm for cheerleading. Jean Marie did so as a cheerleader wearing the ‘Pirate Blue’ and as a coach. She has passed that passion to her squad, a squad that is blessed to call her ‘coach.’