Featured twirler defeats cancer

McDonald student is the school's first 'featured twirler' in 14 years

NILES — Having overcome cancer and loss of her hearing as a young child, 16-year-old Mariah Leskovac is excelling as the featured twirler at McDonald High School — the first one in 14 years.

Mariah, a sophomore, was this school year’s featured twirler with the majorettes performing at football games.

She is the only one to perform solo dancing with batons.

Mariah said she and her family are proud of her achievement and how she has overcome obstacles in her life starting at age 4.

“I had cancer when I was younger and when I got out of the hospital, I was looking for something that I could do. I tried softball, dance and gymnastics. I wanted to find something I could be really good at,” she said.

Mariah said her dance and baton coach Stacey Emch recommended that she do baton, which she’s stayed with since age 6.

Mary Leskovac, Mariah’s mother, said Emch was the one who taught her daughter and also the previous McDonald featured twirler, Alyssa Krumpak, who graduated from the school in 2007.

“Mariah is very determined and works very hard. It is amazing she does all this with all she has had going on. She is always very attentive. I am proud of all she has accomplished,” Emch said.

Mariah said she likes twirling because there is always something new to learn.

“It is not just baton — you have to be flexible when you move,” she said.

She practices year round at Emch’s dance studio, Shining Stars, and the Niles Wellness Center. She mostly performs during half time at football games during the regular season.

January to April is competition season, but that was changed because of the coronavirus.

Mariah said more people were interested in dance than twirling — and that’s the reason there had not been a featured twirler for 14 years at McDonald.

She said the high school band plays “Bad Guy” by Billy Eilish for her solo twirling routine.


At 4, Mariah had neuroblastoma, cancer of the adrenal glands.

Mary said her daughter had stage 4 cancer, serious and very rare for children. Mariah was among 750 cases in the nation.

“Twenty-three percent of the people who get that cancer survive,” Mary said.

Mariah said she received a lot of support from her family and friends while she fought, which kept her in good spirits.

She said therapy dogs also provided her comfort while she was at Akron Children’s Hospital.

Mariah later went to Sloan Kettering Institute in New York City for her treatments.

“She got to a stage where they needed to try new therapy, so Akron Children’s referred us to Sloan Kettering,” Mary recalled.

Mariah and her sister, Destiny, have a Facebook page collecting donations for kids at Akron Children’s nations for kids at Akron Children’s Hospital during the holidays. Mary said the Facebook drive is called “Mariah’s Destiny.” Monetary donations and toys are being accepted through Dec. 15 with information on Facebook on how to make a donation.

Mariah said when they are done with the collection, the family will drop off items at the hospital.

“It is really hard to be in a hospital, but especially at Christmas time. What always made me feel better was when people gave us blankets and toys and the volunteers who came around. We want to make it a little bit better for the kids in the hospital,” she said.

Mariah underwent aggressive radiation and chemotherapy treatments from ages 4 to 8 and then went into remission. She has since been cancer free.

While the treatments handled the cancer, she suffered hearing loss in both ears after her first year of treatment. She later received hearing aids.


Mariah was cheering for the McDonald Little Blue Devils and, following her treatments, began baton twirling.

Her mom said the featured twirler is a prestigious spot for which her daughter had to try out. Mariah is able to twirl three batons at once.

She leads the majorettes onto the stadium field and then goes into the center of the majorette line before coming forward to do her routine up front.

Mariah said the majorettes have all been very supportive of her, noting head majorette / captain Taylor Turchek has been very helpful.

She maintains a 4.0 grade point average while practicing baton and teaching other younger twirlers.

In addition, she has competed on the undefeated tennis team, and participates in choir, concert band and yearbook staff.

School officials noted that Leskovac will have the honor of being the last featured twirler to perform at the A.A. Burkey Stadium as the district will open its new athletic complex in 2021.



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