WHEELING - The champions of OVAC cheering were crowned last weekend at WesBanco Arena.
However, it's a squad that didn't win that's been drawing the attention since the competition.
A year after finishing runner-up to St. Clairsville in Class 4A, the Buckeye Local Panthers returned to WesBanco Arena with a performance that drew a standing ovation from the large crowd on hand.
The reasons for the standing ovation, however, were varied.
Some were highly impressed with the Panthers' on-the-court routine, while others were standing to support the Lady Panthers' alleged decision to knowingly break several rules in a ploy to take out frustration based on falling short in the 2012 competition despite St. Clairsville dealing with several deductions of points.
According to OVAC Cheering Director Libby Shepherd, Buckeye Local broke eight OVAC rules, many of which are utilized by the National Federation, and published on the OVAC website.
"Buckeye Local broke rules with the intent to prove a point to the OVAC," Shepherd said in a statement to The Times Leader. "I understand that they were upset that they did not place first (in 2012), but 25 other schools didn't either.
"Those 25 schools went back and worked harder to do better this year," Shepherd continued. "They didn't set out to mock the 22-year-old OVAC cheering competition."
Some of the deductions the Panthers were docked for included not every member of the squad taking part in the routine, the cheerleaders' hair was removed from a pony tail and several other mistakes.
It's been alleged that the Buckeye Local squad, in essence, threw its routine, but according to Buckeye Local officials, that wasn't the case.
Buckeye Local Superintendent of Schools Mark Miller has been in touch with Panthers' cheering coach Lynda Piergallini since learning of the routine and the reaction it's drawn.
"I have talked with Lynda Piergallini about this and I feel that it was never her intention to disrespect the OVAC tournament," Miller said. "These girls worked hard all year on this routine, from what I have learned they went out with the intent of having fun, there was no malice intended.
"I have watched the YouTube video and, from what I saw, the response from fans was positive," Miller continued. "In fact, Lynda told me that she was shocked when the squad received a standing ovation following the performance."
The idea of having fun in the manner in which Buckeye Local chose didn't sit well with OVAC officials, including Executive Secretary Tom Rataiczak, who realized some of the violations immediately.
Rataiczak was in attendance at WesBanco Arena and was watching the Buckeye Local performance and noticed how "powerful" the Panthers came out early in their performance.
"I was standing there and thinking, wait, they can't do that or that," Rataiczak said. "I could see six or seven violations in a heartbeat. I am not well trained in all rules of cheering as set through the National Federation, but I knew the (OVAC) format and knew some of the things being done were illegal.
"I've never seen anything like this before," Rataiczak said. "By that, I mean in my 50 years of following (high school) athletics and my 15 years with the OVAC."
Obviously, Buckeye Local's decision didn't affect the outcome for anyone but itself. However, that's not the point in Rataiczak's and the OVAC's eyes.
"I think we have to be very, very cautious and make sure we take a good look at this," Rataiczak said. "We can't say to the schools that it's OK to knowingly break the rules and think you're going to get away with it."
As for what's going to come for Buckeye Local, it's still up in the air because the OVAC is continuing to investigate and gather information.
Rataiczak indicated the OVAC's Executive Board will definitely look at what transpired at its next meeting, which is slated for Feb. 27.
"We are looking at it," Rataiczak said. "A decision won't be made until the (Executive) Board meets. We don't want to make a knee-jerk reaction, so we need to sit and really take a look at it."
There's a chance Buckeye Local could come up with a self-imposed punishment and submit it to the conference. Rataiczak points out the final decision, though, will be made by the Executive Board.
"We would take and consider what Buckeye Local came up with, by all means," Rataiczak said. "But, would we follow it? I'm not sure because it's up to the board. We have superintendents, principals, four from each state, who are great people. These are people who are actively involved at their respective state level and they'll make the final decision."
Miller and other Buckeye Local officials will continue to look into the events of last weekend before making any sort of final decision.
"At this point, we will have to consider all of the information and study the situation further," Miller said. "Then we will make a decision as to if we want to continue to compete in the OVAC championship for cheerleading."
The judging of competitions such as cheering, pageants, gymnastics or ice skating are often times questioned because of the subjectivity of it.
According to Rataiczak, the OVAC Cheering Championship utilizes five judges for scoring and then there are two safety judges. The highest score and lowest score are added together and averaged. The remaining three scores are added to that averaged score for the raw score.
From there, the safety judges make their deductions based on violations such as safety, rules or time violations. Once those subtractions are made, the team has its actual score.
"You can argue subjectivity and objectivity, but a person can't single-handedly factor into the results," Rataiczak said.
It's in the judging where some of Miller's concerns lie.
"I admit that I am unfamiliar with the cheering competition and the rules, but considering the recent events, I feel that there needs to be more transparency where the rules and judging are concerned," said Miller. "It may bring to light some things that need to be revisited."
As for the future of the event, which has dealt with its fair share of controversy over the years, Rataiczak doesn't see it getting to the point where the OVAC steps away from crowning cheering champions.
"The thing is, you take School 'A' for instance, it comes every year, participates every year, comes back the next year and the kids just love to compete. For them it's not about winning and losing," Rataiczak said. "If we took the event away, it would be taking away a chance for those kids to compete and showcase their talents."
Shepherd, who is the long-time director of the event, hopes this event doesn't leave a lasting, negative impression for it.
"I know a lot of schools look forward to this event each year, and I hope this episode will not tarnish it for them in the future," Shepherd said.
The OVAC has a band showcase in the fall that's not judged, but just a chance for the marching bands of the conference to display their talents. Could it get to that point for the cheering squads?
"Cheering is a sport in West Virginia, and I believe it will be eventually in Ohio," Rataiczak said. "So, for the fact that you have even half the teams who are taking part in a state-certified sport, I don't see it getting to the point where it's not judged."
Palmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org