Charlene Wepner didn’t need to step out of the shadow of her famous father; she cast her own shadow on Hudson County sports. It was for this reason that she was inducted into the Marist High School Hall of Fame last month.
Wepner shared the limelight with other bright stars of Marist that include Brother Francis Lavigne, Robert DiNiococla, John D. Dwyer, Councilman Joseph Hurley, Rev. John R. Job, Daniel Klinga, and members of the 1969-1970 cross-country team.
Each year the Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at Marist High School honors the very best who have gone on to rewarding professional careers in all disciplines, or who have supported Marist through the years.
Wepner is the daughter of boxer Chuck “The Bleeder” Wepner, a fighter who made history both in the boxing ring and on the silver screen as the model for the Rocky movies.
On Nov. 23, Charlene—once described as the Bob Hurley of Hudson County Cheerleading—was honored for her own achievements, which are legendary.
If you attended any basketball game at Marist in the 1980s, you were bound to see the team of cheerleaders coached by Wepner.
Wepner became Marist High School Cheerleading Coach in 1980, and during a stretch from fall of 1981 to 1989, Marist High School Varsity Cheerleaders won an unprecedented six consecutive HCIAA Varsity Cheerleading championships. Marist High School JV Cheerleaders won all four of HCIAA Championships they entered. In 1987, Marist High School was first Runner Up (2nd place) in the USCA International Cheerleading Championship, Chicago.
“Great teams are a dime a dozen today. Everybody has won championships. But my teams are very original.” -- Charlene Wepner
During this time, she also coached the Bayonne High School Soccer Cheerleading team, which won a number of local competitions.
She said she hadn’t intended to come to Marist as its coach. But some girls had approached Marist administrators asking to hire her, and she got the offer.
While she was at Marist, she also served as head coach for Jersey City State College cheerleading (1985-1987), a noncompetitive program that cheered at football and basketball games.
She said she resigned that position in 1987 to dedicate all her energy to Marist High School's quest to win the United States Cheerleader Association International Championship in 1988. Her teams had come in second place in 1987 in the Chicago competition, but she felt they could win it all.
On the plane back from Chicago, Wepner told her girls that she would quit the job at Jersey City State College, but that they had to work hard to win the top position.
“I knew I couldn’t do both, so I resigned to concentrate on Marist,” she said.
In 1988, her team did indeed win first place in the USCA Varsity Cheerleading International Cheerleading Championship.
Since 1994, Wepner has served as director and choreographer of the Hudson County Angels (formerly SVP and MetroCheer) which has won national championships 14 times.
“I’ve been coaching 40 years,” she said. “I started when I was 16 years old.”
Even though she had shown a record of winning prior to 1980, she said she became head coach for the first time at Marist.
“Before that I was always an assistant under a teacher,” she said. “Marist welcomed me with open arms.”
Marist didn’t have it easy. It was a little-known team in an era when the county had a number of powerhouse cheerleading teams in places like North Bergen, Hoboken, Union Hill, and St. Joseph’s.
She said Marist people came out in force to support her team during the championship, not just sports people, but everyone. She remembered winning the Hudson County championship at St. Peter’s College the first time, and thinking all she wanted to do was get in the top five out of the 15 competing teams.
“With all the powerhouse teams, nobody ever heard of Marist,” she said. “Going to St. Peter’s was like a movie. Nobody looked at us. All the girls were nervous. The other teams were all intimidating each other, but not us. I told my girls not to look at any of them, but to do their own routine.”
At the end, she recalled the countdown with Hoboken, St. Joe’s, and North Bergen placing in the top five. The more she heard, the more depressed she became. She thought they deserved to place.
“My girls started jumping up and down,” she said.
Marist had won first place. Some of her girls were crying. People from Holy Family Academy where she also coached and others from Marist and around Bayonne surrounded them.
“I never thought we would win,” she said. “I thought my head would pop. It didn’t’ hit me at first. I was used to winning, but to see these kids, I was stunned.”
But each championship over the years has its own rewards, because they are different girls and it’s always a different experience, she said.
“I’ve won so much I only keep the latest trophy, I give most of them to the girls,” she said.
Wepner said the key to her success was choreographing.
“I’m a choreographer by nature,” she said. “Great teams are a dime a dozen today. Everybody has won championships. But my teams are very original. Everywhere we go people come up to us and ask where we came from and say they never saw a team like ours.”
She said her skills involve motivating people and original routines. She said her girls work hard and that she runs a serious program.
“In my program, we’re hardcore cheerleaders. This is no joke. This is a sport. These girls are athletes.”
And what influence did her famous father have on her career?
“He is an incredible inspiration to me,” she said. “He taught me about … not settling for anything less.”
As fierce a competitor as she is, Wepner teaches her girls sportsmanship.
“These are not enemies, they’re on different teams, they will be friends, neighbors, coworkers. It’s not about beating each other, it’s about doing our best,” she said.