The Eastern Kentucky University all girls and co- ed cheerleading teams finished third at the Universal Cheerleaders Association (UCA) National competition hosted at Walt Disney World Resort.
Preparing for nationals began last semester for the cheer teams.
“We cram a whole season into five weeks so when everybody leaves for Christmas break we start two-a-days,” EKU all-girl cheerleading coach Chelsea Hamilton said.
“Last year we gave them about seven or eight days for Christmas break but we decided that that was too long so this year we only went with four [days off] and then we practiced on New Years Eve and New Years day.”
The all-girl team also performed multiple times before heading to Florida to prepare for the biggest stage in college cheerleading.
“You only compete one time in college so you have to get out there and at least do your routine in front of people, good, bad or ugly so we did six of those [performances before nationals],” said Hamilton.
Going through practices and competitions gave the girls a chance to prepare and make corrections before nationals.
“This is the time where you’re mentally and physically exhausted so you really have to dig deep and rely on your teammates and coaches to get through,” said Hannah Sawyers, a senior leader on the team.
Hamilton and the team headed into nationals with a positive mindset. Hamilton said even if the teams were perfect in practice leading up to the performance, it all comes down to two and a half minutes.
The all-girl squad competed against 15 other programs, and the co-ed team competed with four others in the Division I category.
The co-ed team finished behind Morehead State and Missouri State.
This is the second time in school history that the all- girls team placed third at nationals; they finished third for the first time in 2015.
“It’s the people we beat that made it so special. Morehead had never gotten below second and obviously they are right down the road so that was a great thing for us,” said Hamilton.
Morehead finished fourth in the all-girl finals.
The EKU all-girl squad came in third behind second place team West Georgia and first place team Sacred Heart.
“Back in the day when I cheered it was really only Morehead and West Georgia, they ran the division for years,” Hamilton said. “No one had ever beat either of them... this year the division was really good. Everybody made mistakes and last year first, second, third and fourth all hit their routines and this year no one hit. Going into awards it was kind of up in the air.”
“It’s absolutely amazing,” Sawyers said. “It’s been my goal all four years at Eastern to get at least top three and to be able to end here that way, I couldn’t have asked for a better season.”
Sawyers placed seventh her freshman year, did not place in her sophomore year and placed eighth her junior year.
To the all-girls team, placing third felt like placing first because of the jump from eighth a year ago to third this year.
“Last year our routine wasn’t as hard. We did have mistakes in finals and I don’t think we would have placed eighth with a hit but that’s part of the industry and the sport we’re in. If you drop, that’s what happens, so we recruited and got kids in that were talented and plugged those in and that worked in our favor,” Hamilton said.
The all-girl squad is only losing two seniors which is a big deal for Hamilton and her coaching staff.
“I hate that they are leaving, but to only have two seniors is a huge deal,” Hamilton said. “We’re starting next year with the same 18.”
“A lot of these high school kids we recruited won high school nationals which is a big deal because you’re going up against 50 to 60 teams in Florida in high school so it’s a very competitive mindset, but young so you don’t know what they are going to do on this floor.”
Hamilton and Sawyers credited the freshmen athletes for stepping up.
“They were all very eager to learn and excited to learn,” Sawyers said.
Sawyers said the team this season was ready and confident that they would do good at nationals.
“Honestly this was the most confident we have ever felt throughout the whole season,” Sawyers said. “We became a family and everyone bonded so well this year and you couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Coming in third is a turning point for the EKU cheerleading team, in the words of Hamilton.
“Nobody would have ever thought,” Hamilton said. “Everybody wanted the underdogs to win.”
The cheerleading teams are back to work hoping to improve throughout the semester and summer for next years nationals.
Hamilton is proud of her teams’ performance and hopes for more success next season.