WOOD-RIDGE, NJ - It's time for college football. And while the Big 10 and Colonial Athletic Association has postponed their football programs until the spring due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, two recent high school graduates are looking to make their marks on those schools' cheer teams this year.

Jillian Hynes and Isabella Iacovino are graduates of the Wood-Ridge High School Class of 2020, which lost the final three months of their senior year when schools where shutdown in mid-March. Despite the challenges caused by the ongoing health crisis, both earned spots on their respective college's cheer teams. 

Both have been cheering for 13 years. Hynes and Iacovino came up through the town's cheerleading program through the Recreation Department and through high school.

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"Cheering with Jillian has been an amazing experience," said Iacovino. "From when we were little to now, we were always obsessed with anything cheer related. We even attended a competition in Florida to watch all-star cheerleaders together in 2015. This gave us a closer bond which is why we became so close on the high school level."

"Bella and I have always cheered together," said Hynes. "For most of our recreation cheerleading years, I actually based Bella. Then, as we got older, Bella and I based together for a couple years."

There is more to these two athletes than just cheering. Hynes competed on the Fall Cheerleading and Competitive Cheerleading teams, was a member of the National Honor Society, the Yearbook Club, and played softball for two years.

Iacovino was a three-sport athlete as a member of the Fall Cheerleading, Competitive Cheerleading, and Softball teams. In addition, she was a member of the National Honor Society, Italian Honor Society, Student Council and Yearbook Club.

Both student-athletes augmented their daily team practices with additional training, including tumbling and dance, as well as visits to the gym to develop strength, agility, and stamina.

The pandemic had a cascading effect on the high school's team.  When schools closed down in March, Wood-Ridge cheer team's trip to the Nationals in Orlando, FL, to defend their title was canceled as well as Senior Night. In addition, Hynes and Iacovino's collegiate tryouts became virtual. That process included completing the online application, a phone interview, and video submission featuring required skills including stunting, tumbling, and sideline cheers, among others. 

Hynes said waiting for the phone interview was a little unnerving.

"I didn’t hear back for a couple of weeks, but eventually, I received an email asking about setting up a phone interview," she said. "Almost immediately, I emailed back to set up the phone interview. I tried to think of potential questions I might be asked so that I could prepare a little. Minutes before the interview, I could not take my eyes off of my phone. I did not want to miss the call."

"Contrary to what I thought, the phone interview was not at all bad," said Hynes. "The coaches are super nice and were very easy to talk to. I was offered a spot on the team and could not be happier to continue my cheerleading career with another amazing program!"

Jillian Hynes is a member of the Rutgers University Cheer Team. 

"Rutgers has always been my dream school," said Hynes. "Coming from a small town and small high school, I’ve always planned on going to a bigger school. I am looking to experience new things, and I believe that going to Rutgers is going to give me the future that I am looking for."

Iacovino put in extra hours in preparation for her tryout.

"I prepared for two months by practicing my sidelines day in and day out, collecting videos of my stunting abilities, and going to tumbling before COVID-19 got worse," she said. "I had to dress for the part as well - wearing a white t-shirt, navy blue shorts and do my hair and makeup the “Rhody Cheerleading” way."

Isabella Iacovino is a member of the University of Rhode Island Cheer Team. She will be a part of Rhode Island's School of Pharmacy, and will be pursuing a six-year program that will allow her to graduate with her doctorate. 

"Being a part of the pharmacy program and cheerleading team is amazing because although I have rigorous courses, I am able to take on many other activities," she said.

Both athletes acknowledge the program and coaches that helped them obtain their dreams of cheering in college. Jennifer Hynes (Jillian's mother) and Brittany Franchini both recently resigned as the high school's cheer coaches. Hynes coached for 20 years, and Franchini for 13 years.

"Being coached by my mom is obviously a very different experience than most people have, but I wouldn’t change it for the world," said Jillian. "Yes, we may argue like any mother and daughter do, but when it comes to cheerleading, I will never doubt her guidance. She has been coaching in Wood-Ridge for longer than I’ve been alive, and has been extremely successful, so she definitely knows what she is talking about. Getting to share my three state titles and my national title with my mom is something that is so special to me. Not many people get to share the experiences that me and my mom have, and they have for sure brought us closer."

"Being coached by Jen is one of the most rewarding things. Ever since I was a little girl, I looked up to her high school team dreaming to be just like one of those girls," said Iacovino. "When I made the team freshman year, I learned all of her ways and adapted to the way she works. Her coaching abilities get us to be the best of the best, and I am so thankful to be coached by someone like her. It has been an honor to have been under her wing for the past four years and I can’t wait to take every lesson I’ve learned into my new chapter of college cheerleading."

Even though college football has been postponed until the spring for both Rutgers and URI and student life has been upended, both Hynes and Iacovino continue to look forward to the season.

Iacovino is currently at URI, taking classes in person and online, noting "they have a great system and are making sure all of their students are taken care of."

"In addition, we have workouts we have to submit every week to make sure we are staying in shape," she said. Cheer practice will begin in two weeks.

Hynes' classes are all virtual and is also living on campus with a teammate. 

"Instead of starting practices in the beginning of September, we will now be starting to practice October 12th," she said. "Until then, we have assigned workouts to complete daily, and are expected to be keeping up with our skills on our own."

Hynes and Iacovino's paths may cross again. Both Rutgers and URI are scheduled to attend the UCA College Nationals in Orlando in January 2021."

"Although we may be rivals, our hearts will always be bonded as a Wood-Ridge Blue Devil Cheerleader," observed. Iacovino.

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