It’s not every day that people are cheering for the cheerleaders, Libby Bettin said.
But that’s exactly what the Ottawa University community, as well as local friends, family members and other supporters plan to do this weekend, as the OU cheerleading team competes for a national title in Daytona Beach, Fla.
It’s the first time in the program’s history that OU’s cheer squad is headed to nationals.
And it couldn’t have happened to a more close-knit, hardworking team, Bettin, graduate assistant coach, said.
“This team is amazing,” Bettin said. “This is the strongest team I’ve ever worked with. They work so well together. They motivate each other. They act as a family, and they will just do anything they can for one another. It’s great as a coach to have a team so willing to put forth this effort.”
The team is coached by Shayla Jacob, head spirit team coordinator, and Bettin, who has been with the program for three years.
‘Keep calm and cheer on’
Twenty members of the team will be making the trip — 18 women and two men. They left Wednesday for the two-day event, which will feature the performances of nearly 300 cheer and dance teams, Jacob said.
To amp up excitement for the event, the team had its final practice Tuesday, which also served as a pep rally for fellow athletes and students to show their support. Members of OU’s basketball team, as well as other student-athletes and relatives, even made signs for the event, saying such things as “Keep calm and cheer on.”
To qualify for nationals, the team competed regionally in February in Oklahoma City, winning its division and receiving the top overall score. It also was one of three teams in its division to receive a gold bid to go to the national competition, which means the National Cheerleaders Association would cover team members’ hotel costs and registration fees.
That only left airline and food costs, Jacob said, which the team paid for through fundraising efforts and contributions from OU’s Student Senate.
For the competition, the team will perform a 2-minute, 15-second routine with choreographed stunts, tumbling, jumps and dance moves, in addition to a 45-second cheer portion.
“So, stunts, megaphones, kind of similar to what you’d see at a basketball game,” Jacob said.
Preliminary competition was expected to be today, and the top five teams will go on to compete in the finals Friday. The remaining teams also will perform again for sixth place, Bettin said.
“So regardless, we will be competing at least twice,” she said.
The cheerleaders started learning the team’s routine right after Christmas break, Jacob said, and have been working five days a week — three days in practice and two days conditioning — on it.
“To learn a routine from start to finish to be nationals-ready, it takes three to three-and-a-half months,” Jacob said. “It’s only a 2-minute, 15-second routine, but there’s so much that goes into it. There’s a lot of integral little stuff people don’t notice, but it takes a lot to do that.”
It might be the team’s first time going to nationals, but Jacob has made the trip before — once as a coach of another school and twice as a competitor for Barton County Community College. The second year she went, it was with her school’s dance team, which went on to win their division.
“I had never done anything like that,” Jacob said. “I don’t remember being real nervous, but it was more just the experience that I remember, being there and seeing all the other teams and just watching everything.”
This year’s team may be nervous about the competition, Jacob said, but they haven’t showed it much.
“I think we have a really good shot to do well,” Jacob said. “Out of our division, we were one of three gold bids that were given. We haven’t competed against the others, but we have a good shot of being up there.”
Jacob hopes to return with the team to nationals next year, especially because with just one senior on the team, most everyone is expected to return next season.
The trip also will be a great recruiting tool for the program in the future, Jacob said.
“That’s kind of the direction cheer is going for these kids,” Jacob said. “That’s what they want to do. They want to compete. Thirty years ago, cheerleading was completely different. But now, when you ask kids about cheerleading ... it’s more about the competition part of it.”
‘A better atmosphere’
When they’re not competing, the cheerleaders can be found at other events and sporting games, providing that much-needed school spirit boost that raises players’ confidence.
“We’ve heard from players that when we’re not there for a Saturday-night game, the gym is so quiet,” Jacob said. “(We) give it a better atmosphere, just that little push to keep the game going and keep the guys’ or girls’ spirits up. As a player, you play better when you have a gym full of people screaming for you.”
There are no captains on OU’s cheerleading team, Jacob said, just those who excel in different areas.
“It is a completely whole-team effort,” she said. “We have individuals who are good in different areas, and you put them all together, and it makes for a really great team this year.”
A cheerleader serves as one of three positions: a flier, or one who is on top of formations, a base, who uses his or her hands for the fliers to stand on, and a backspot, who serves as foundations for the stunt.
“It takes all three parts to keep that flier up in the air,” Bettin said.
And just like any other sport, cheerleading does have its risk for injuries, Bettin said.
“Everybody has to do their job the right way every time, or we risk somebody being hurt,” she said.
Sophomore Jasmine Brown has been injured twice in her seven years as a cheerleader — once in high school and once just recently. Because of that, she won’t be competing with her team, although she still will be traveling to Florida to show her support.
Brown described her team as a “dysfunctional family,” although not in the sense one would probably think.
“We all have different personalities and skills, which is good, because it really wouldn’t work if we were all the same,” she said.
Junior J.D. Johnson is one of two men on the squad. It is his first year on the team, he said. Johnson wanted to try cheerleading after competing in other sports, including track, football and wrestling, he said.
Playing such an integral part in someone else’s safety, as well as their successes or failures, is why he enjoys being a cheerleader.
“Just like in football, you have to operate together to score points,” he said. “It’s the same here. You have to work together to do well.”
And what do his friends think?
“They’re all for it,” he said. “They think it’s pretty sweet.”
The team will be returning home Sunday, and regardless of how the team does, Bettin said she’s proud to have been part of it.
“We’re very proud to represent our school for the first time going to nationals,” she said. “It’s a very big deal, and it’s great the campus is supporting us so much. Usually, we’re the ones doing the cheering, so it’s nice to see our school cheering us on.”