Mary Coajou did not become the cheerleading coach at St. John Regional Catholic School because she has too much time on her hands.
The 49-year-old already has a demanding job as an active-duty senior nurse consultant with the U.S. Public Health Service. She works with facilities to maintain their Medicare certifications, and frequently has to deploy in emergencies.
Coaching middle schoolers in cheerleading has become her stress release.
She’s done so for the past 10 years, now coaching alongside her daughter, Celeste, and three others. She became involved because both of her children attended St. John’s.
The school initially did not have its own cheerleading squad, she said. It did have cheerleaders, but they cheered for Mid-Maryland Basketball, a team made up of members of different Frederick County parishes.
When they opened the school’s new location, Coajou thought it would be a good idea to start the squad in order for girls to develop the skills to be able to cheer in high school. These include hand and arm positions, jumps and some dance.
“We really started with the basics,” she said. “If they didn’t learn it in middle school, they most likely wouldn’t make their high school team.”
Initially, the squad just cheered for basketball games, but after two years, Coajou decided to get them involved in some competitions.
For the past eight years, they’ve gone from earning honorable mentions to first place. They were recently named the high score champions at the Maryland State Cheerstarz in Rockville.
This qualified them for the U.S. Finals competition in Providence, Rhode Island.
“Which was why my mouth was on the floor,” Coajou said with a laugh.
The squad, which is currently ranked 14th in the nation for their division, competed last weekend, though their score was not immediately available. Members raised $10,000 to attend through corporate donations and a GoFundMe website.
There are 12 girls on the competition squad, with a larger number cheering for the basketball games.
Competing at the national level will be bittersweet for Coajou since this is her last year with the squad. She and fellow coach, Michelle Enis, have decided to switch over to the high school level at St. John’s Catholic Prep in Buckeystown.
Coajou expects to retire from coaching completely within the next few years.
“My role is more of an administrator to help get (Enis) going,” she said.
She will, however, be greatly missed at the middle school level.
“She’s really boosted my self-confidence,” said Danielle Lagana, 12.
The seventh-grader said Coajou was the type of coach who would encourage the cheerleaders to put aside their own issues and bad days to come together as a team. Gossiping, whispering among each other and bullying has never been tolerated.
“You never see the cattiness you often see in middle school,” Coajou said. “Cheerleading is about lifting spirits, not bringing people down.”
Before competitions, she reminds the girls that the judges don’t know them, don’t know if they’ve had a bad day or are going through a personal hardship.
“You’ve got to go find your happy place and put your best foot forward,” she said.
They doesn’t turn down anyone who tries out for the squad that cheers for basketball games, though not all of the same girls compete.
Eighth-grader Mimi Pessagno is looking forward to continuing to work with Coajou next year at the high school.
“She’s very fair,” said Mimi, 14. “She knows a lot about cheer and helping girls have confidence.”