The Eastern Kentucky University all-girl and co-ed cheer teams won first place in their divisions for the 2021 UCA College Virtual National Championships.
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted everyone's daily lives, including sports teams. Back in 2020, EKU made the decision to push back many sports seasons in order to make for a safer environment for each team. A normal cheerleading season ends in January, but there was a three-month extension for the cheer season.
EKU all-girl head coach Chelsea Hamilton said that the biggest struggle for them was keeping the teams engaged the whole year. Most players on both teams have work and other obligations to fulfill outside of cheerleading.
“A lot of our kids work full time and go to school full time,” Hamilton said. “We would go six to eight, and she [Tristan] would go until ten thirty at night. … it’s exhausting.”
EKU co-ed head coach Tristan Hawk said that the season has been difficult with a nonstop schedule.
“Having to deal with people quitting and where the year was extended so long and keeping them motivated was a challenge,” Hawk said.
In order to overcome the challenges faced, Hamilton said they made practices more fun in order to keep the players engaged.
“We would take them to dinner and make our practices more fun,” Hamilton said. “We opened up our taping to the public ... when you have people there rooting for you, it makes it so much easier.”
Hawk said that they would invite other teams to come practice with them, like Madison Central.
“It was nice to have those teams come in because it made us realize that we weren’t the only team practicing until April, so that did help,” Hamilton said.
The national championship normally involves the teams traveling to Disney World to compete in front of a crowd, but this year was virtual due to COVID-19.
“I was a little more on edge about everything because we didn’t know that our score was closer to the second place team,” Hawk said. “They announced the other team first, and then they yelled ours.”
When competing in person, Hamilton said that both teams compete, and they find out in one day. For the virtual competition, however, they had to wait several days for results.
“It just felt like forever [compared to] what it usually is,” Hamilton said.
Hawk said that both teams had to submit a video in order to find out their placements in the competition then were allowed to resubmit their videos if they wanted.
“We had several opportunities this year to get a good video,” Hawk said. “Most of the time you go down there and it's one and done.”
Hamilton said that they don’t get the same feeling they get from going in person because the taping was just the teams and in front of parents.
“There’s nothing like walking on the stage and knowing that this is it,” Hamilton said. “With taping you don’t see everyone elses… at nationals, we’ve normally seen everyone’s routine.”
Hamilton said recruiting helped lead the team to their current success.
“Every year, I’ve slowly tried to bring in and recruit five to ten girls that are hopefully better than the next, every year it just slowly gets better,” Hamilton said. “I think it worked out this year, and hopefully we’ll be better next year.”
Hawk said that when she first started coaching three years ago, they were trying to navigate what needed to be done in order to compete at a higher level.
“The kids we came in coaching compared to now have a completely different mindset—for the better,” Hawk said. “Most of the kids that both of us are bringing in have competed at high school nationals, and they know what it's like to be competitive in the cheer realm of things, and I honestly think that’s what makes a difference.”
Hamilton said within the three years they both have coached, they have brought in a staff to help along the way.
“We’ve also created a staff for each of us. It's hard to do it alone,” Hamilton said. “When you get your own people in there and everyone’s on board, it’s nice to have more hands on the routines and help.”
Hawk said that her seniors were upset when they found out they would be virtual, but being home allowed more families to be there to support them because many families can’t travel to Disney with the team.
“After we found out we had won, they were very thankful and excited for the experience,” Hawk said. “Being here in Richmond gave people's families the opportunity to support them and give them hugs. It was special to have that local support for us doing something big.”
Hamilton said she felt relieved when they found out in the semifinals that the all-girl team was ahead seven points in the semifinals.
“Cheerleading is a weird sport and anything can happen… accidents happen where they announce the wrong team, especially virtual,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton said that she did not feel comfortable sending their team in person to nationals because of the pandemic and other schools being involved.
“Our athletic department has done such a great job with keeping us all safe and in bubbles,” Hamilton said. “Many other schools are not doing what we do, and I didn’t feel comfortable sending both of our programs to Florida with other teams that weren’t practicing the same things we were.”
Nakaiya Mayberry, who is a senior at EKU and cheers on the all-girl team, said that it meant a lot for the team to win because of their hard work and the dedication they have put into the program this season.
“I was proud more than anything. We worked hard. I was just glad it paid off,” Mayberry said. “My first year here, we didn’t even make it to the finals, so winning was a huge deal for me because I’ve seen the program change.”
Both teams made history at EKU with their first national championship title.
“It’s special because we’ve both [Tristan] been through so much together, and it was nice to know that we did it together,” Hamilton said. “We wanted both teams to win, and when someone else does it with you and we’re all under the same name, it was super special.”
Hawk said winning nationals meant a lot because her father had previously cheered at EKU.
“My dad cheered, and he was an alumnus … he passed away, but it just holds something way more special in my heart knowing that he was there with me and that I’ve made history,” Hawk said.