Cheer team makes national competition debut, places 7th

The St. Edward’s cheer team made their first appearance in national competition, finishing seventh out of 11 at the Universal Cheer Association (UCA) National Championships hosted at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida on Jan. 19.

“To be able to beat other teams that have been to Nationals before lit this competitive fire in us,” SEU Cheer Head Coach Talia Russell said. “Witnessing the excitement on their faces of realizing their accomplishments was probably the best part for me.”

In preparation for Nationals, the cheerleaders had only one week off during winter break and practiced almost every day for 3-4 hours. The 16-member team had to persevere through minor injuries that set them back a week or two in perfecting their routine for its UCA Small co-ed Div. II category.

“Honestly, just having the chance to be on the mat was the most rewarding part,” junior flyer Zuaramitzi Lara said. “Making it to Finals was our ultimate goal, so that we could be nationally-ranked.”

Although St. Edward’s has had cheerleaders for decades, Russell’s arrival in January of 2015 has been pivotal to leading the squad to the blue mats of competition – instead of only the sidelines.

In the two years Russell has served as head coach, she has helped the team improve on stunt work to lead the crowd. Although the wooden court limits their stunt difficulty, the cheerleaders use extensions and libs to entertain sports fans at volleyball games, as well as men’s and women’s basketball games. Elite college-level skills like pyramids and basket tosses are reserved for competition.

“They put a lot of trust in me, and I’m grateful for that,” Russell said about her team’s approach toward learning advanced stunts. “Now that we went [to Nationals] this year, they see what all their hard work was for.”

Fundraising was a key aspect that helped the team arrive at Nationals, just as it was when the volleyball team competed in Nicaragua, and the men’s and women’s basketball teams played in Puerto Rico. Since the summer, the cheer team held at least one monthly fundraiser, which included restaurant give-back nights and campus bake sales.

Cheerleading is considered a sport like all the other athletic programs by the University. But within the NCAA, cheerleading is regarded as an athletic activity, not an actual sport. This non-sport classification allows the cheerleaders flexibility to practice and perform during both semesters, and the opportunity to serve as university ambassadors at various events without abiding by strict NCAA hour limits and rules.

In 2016, the International Olympics Committee recognized cheerleading as an official sport eligible for grants, which could change how cheerleading is regulated and regarded in the years to come. There is an emerging NCAA sport called STUNT, in which cheerleaders are judged on tumbling and stunt difficulty throughout a simulated, four-quarter game atmosphere.

For now, Russell’s primary focus is ensuring the cheerleaders have a strong halftime performance during the Homecoming basketball games on Feb. 18. Long-term goals include continuing to increase recruiting efforts, improve overall skills and compete at the national level.

“Us going to Nationals shows the growth of the University and the athletic department,” Russell said. “I know that my team is very proud to wear ‘SEU’ on their uniforms, and they also appreciate all the support they’ve gotten from everyone.”