On Sept. 18 and 19, almost 40 students made their way to the AWC with one hope: to make the New Paltz cheerleading team. Over the course of those two days, athletes tried their best to demonstrate their skills. Girls were thrown into the air in stunts, everyone pulled off sky-high jumps and tumblers threw gravity-defying flips across the floor. The energy was intense as each person worked hard for one of the few coveted spots on the team.
The two coaches, Brittany Sanchez and Cheyanne Edwards, were blown away by the amount of talent and hardwork they saw that weekend. By Sunday night, the team had gone from only eight returning cheerleaders to 26 athletes total.
The eight returners have reached out to welcome the new comers with open arms. This supportive team of dedicated athletes can’t wait to cheer with their friends. Even having a team is a big deal: this is the first time in almost two years that the team has been able to have a real cheer season.
The cheer team is commonly seen at women’s and men’s basketball home games, but what people may not know is that there is an even bigger goal that the team is working towards every year. In the spring, there is the National Cheerleading competition in Daytona Beach, Florida. New Paltz Cheer competed previously, but since COVID they have not been able to go. This season is focused on the main goal of rebuilding the team to prepare for the national competition.
Preparing a team for a national competition on the collegiate level is not easy. Contrary to popular belief, cheer is challenging and statistically has more injuries than any other sport, including football. Each competition cheer routine lasts only around two minutes long, but packs incredible feats of athleticism into that short time.
There is tumbling, like you commonly see in gymnastics, as well as jump sequences. There is a game day chant section and a high speed dance incorporated into the routine. Arguably the most important, however, is stunting. A stunt requires two bases and one backspot throwing a flyer into the air. At the college level, this flyer often catches a second girl while she’s already elevated to add another level. Stunting is difficult and dangerous, and each cheerleader spends hours practicing it.
“They train so hard,” Coach Sanchez said.
The team works in the gym every Saturday and Sunday, and each athlete tries to put individual work in as well. Due to the danger level, the team needs to roll out protective mats for safety that can only be put down in the gym. The cheer team, however, is only given two hours a weekend by the school to use the gym.
When asked what it takes to get ready for nationals, both coaches burst out in unison: “PRACTICE!” It takes practice to get a routine ready for nationals, and that practice is even more essential when you factor in the danger.
Cheer is not only officially classified as a sport, competition cheer was officially recognized by and welcomed into the Olympics in 2021. Despite this, cheer is treated as less than other sports, even right here at New Paltz.
“Two hours is not enough time to do anything, with any sport,” Sanchez says. “Cheerleading is the most dangerous sport, so the only way that you’re going to safely perform these skills is repetition and practice. Because we have to practice on mats, we are limited to where we can practice.”
Limitations of time and space cannot stop this team. New skills are being learned each day. At practice this weekend, three athletes were able to perform back handsprings they previously were unable to. Three different types of pyramid stunts that were two girls high in the air went up flawlessly after working hard to perfect them. Multiple groups were able to execute back tuck basket toss stunts, where the flyer back-flips mid air and is then caught by her stunt group.
“You need to trust each other,” Edwards said solemnly.
In a sport like cheer where trust in your teammates is so essential, having strong captains elected by the team members is incredibly important. Elections for team captains were held Saturday, Oct. 2. Fourth-year Cayla Mazzei, the previously voted in captain, was joined by returning third-year Sierra Kowalski and transfer student third-year Za’ire People. The captains were asked about what it takes to be a college cheerleader and about what being a captain means to them personally.
“I want to be there to support each individual on the team cheer-wise and personally to lift them up,” Kowalski stated. As a returning member of the team, she understands what it takes to be an athlete at this level. She stressed the importance of being a good friend to everyone. Cheer is impossible to do without a close team.
People also mentioned the bonds you form in cheer and about what it takes to push yourself to be a better athlete to keep up with your teammates.
“My mom always says ‘practice makes permanent’ and I try to remember that every time I step onto the mat,” she said, heartwarmingly recalling her mom’s words. People mentioned that practice and experience are both very important, and mentioned how a good spirited captain can get the team through even the tough moments.
A special insight into the team came when speaking to Mazzei, a returning cheerleader and one of the few seniors on the team. She hopes to build a solid foundation for the future.
“There is a lot to learn but a lot of potential,” Mazzei said.