By Joseph Staszewski

Denise Lewinger made a promise to her cheerleaders the day she walked into Mary Louis three years ago, and last month she made good on it.

The former Fontbonne Hall alum had unseated then-champion St. Francis Prep in her third year coaching the Bonnies. She went on to lead the Bay Ridge school to 10 straight CHSAA Brooklyn/Queens cheerleading titles before coming to TMLA, where brother Joe Lewinger is the athletic director.

She told the Hilltoppers she could turn them into a championship team and end Fontbonne’s victorious reign – just give her three years.

Her students were skeptical after a third-place finish the year prior.

“Everyone didn’t believe her,” senior captain Corinne Murphy said.

Lewinger’s tough-love style and unwavering confidence in her team turned her squad into believers. All of their hard work paid off when Mary Louis, which had received second place the previous two years, bested Fontbonne for the diocesan title March 29 at Christ the King. The victory ended the Bonnies’ 12-year reign over the Brooklyn/Queens division.

“Every year we got closer and closer,” Murphy said. “Winning was amazing and being able to say we beat them and broke the streak.”

Added senior captain Christie Marino, “Once we heard that we came in first, all of us just dropped. I think we were all shocked.”

Lewinger called the victory bittersweet. It was tough to see something she had built come to an end, but she couldn’t have been happier for her TMLA team. Lewinger had watched the growth of her cheerleaders’ confidence, competitiveness and determination culminate in an amazing achievement.

She credited Marino, Murphy and fellow seniors Megan Gardiner, Kristen Graue, Chelsey Larkin and Maria Papavassilliou for their leadership over the season.

“To see the transformation in the girls and how proud they are of themselves and how hard they worked, feels even better,” Lewinger said.

She and her team members said this year’s squad had better cohesion and camaraderie than in previous seasons. Lewinger focused more on each member doing her individual job to perfection rather than worry about what everyone else was supposed to be doing.

And she never let them give up. Lewinger said teams had put Fontbonne on a pedestal and believed that they weren’t good enough to beat the Bonnies. She never let her cheerleaders think that as they saw themselves slowly closing the gap.

Right on schedule Mary Louis finally caught and surpassed Fontbonne.

“I told them I’ll give you a three-year commitment, and the third year I would win,” Lewinger said. “It takes three years to build a program.”

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