WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - As they say, staying at the top is a lot harder than getting to the top. The Purdue cheerleading squad now is in a position to see if that’s true.
For the first time in program history, the Boilermaker cheerleading squad qualified an all-girl stunt group, co-ed partner stunt and a team to compete at UCA college nationals, and as a team took home second place in Division I small co-ed, its highest finish since placing second in 2002 at NCA college nationals.
“Going into this season, you could just feel it was different, but in a good way,” head coach Steve Solberg said. “The talent and skill level of this team was the best we’ve had in a long time, and we knew that if everything came together and we stayed healthy, we could do something special this year at nationals.”
Even the athletes knew that this could be the year where Purdue cheerleading could put itself at the top of the standings and let people know they were there to compete for a national title.
“This year’s nationals team was different and more competitive, even before the official team was announced,” sophomore Taylor Scheid said. “As soon as school started, we were all in the gym, working together on our own time on pyramids and stunts, and that drive and determination set the tone for the whole nationals season.”
The team competed in Division I small co-ed, which is comprised of schools who are as an athletics department Division I or IA, and have no more than four males on the competition floor. The all-girl stunt group and co-ed partner stunt had to send in a video by early November to receive a bid to compete in finals. A total of 25 all-girl stunt groups and 28 co-ed partner stunts sent in a video, and only 16 all-girl groups and 18 co-ed partner stunts received a bid to compete at nationals. In the video rankings, Purdue placed ninth in group stunt and seventh in co-ed partner stunts overall.
Team choreography started in October, and practices were held once or twice a week until final exam week. After finals week, the team had a couple of two-a-day practices before getting six days off for Christmas. After break, the team came back and had a week and a half of two-a-days to get ready for nationals.
“What these athletes give up in regards to time they could be spending with family and friends for nationals unbelievable,” Solberg said. “I know what they give up, which is why when people make this commitment, I truly respect them because what they’re giving up is a lot.”
Before leaving for Orlando, Florida, the team had live performances after four basketball games and held their friends and family exhibition, and all went well. While there were a few bumps in the road and a couple of practices where things didn’t go quite as planned, the team members felt confident that they had a routine that would be competitive and that they would peak as a team at nationals.
What was extra special was that once again the Boilermaker family showed its support for the team. Both the men’s and women’s basketball teams came to a practice and watched the team perform their routine. Women’s basketball coach Sharon Versyp and track & field coach Lonnie Greene both gave great inspirational talks to the team, and Olympic gold medalist David Boudia sent a video to the team giving them great advice and motivation while in Florida.
“I tell my counterparts at other schools that one of the best things about being at Purdue is the family atmosphere we have here,” Solberg said. “Honestly, not many school’s coaches would send their team after practice to watch the cheerleaders perform. To have coaches take time out of their busy schedule to come in and talk to the team wouldn’t happen at many places. We had an Olympic gold medalist, who is training for the 2016 Rio games, take time out of his training day to send us a three minute video. We are truly lucky to be Boilermakers.”
The team had an early flight and was on the bus at 3:30 a.m. Jan. 14 to head to the Indianapolis airport. After the 6:30 a.m. flight landed, the team had a few hours to rest and grab food before practice. Then the team had its traditional team dinner and grabbed dessert at the Candy Cauldron and had a milkshake from Ghirardelli. The team went to bed early because they had early morning practice the next day.
Practice Jan. 15 started at 8 a.m. Since the team competed at 8:09 a.m., the coaching staff wanted the team to get used to being up early and doing the routine. The team had a great practice and routine and they felt good going into afternoon practice, but Mother Nature had different ideas. There was lots of rain, and the team was prepared to cancel the afternoon practice and get ready to go to group and partner stunt championship. However, the clouds cleared and the sun came out and the team had without a doubt its best practice of the season. In one hour of practice, the team dropped literally nothing. The team was in the zone and was ready for the following day.
Before the team competed Jan. 16, the all-girl stunt group and co-ed partner stunt competed the previous evening. Both had good warm-ups and felt good going into the competition. While both had decent routines, there were a few mistakes in each, and in a very odd year, lots of group and partner stunts hit routines. Co-ed ended up 13th and all-girl placed 11th.
“We knew it wasn’t the routines they were hoping for,” assistant coach Nicole Smith said. “Both all-girl and co-ed had great warm-ups and had better performances back home at Purdue. However, they should both still be proud that they helped Purdue cheer make history. They are a part of the first team to ever qualify both in the all-girl and partner stunt championships. There were a lot of group and partner stunt teams that would have loved to have had the opportunity to compete on Friday night. We are proud that they helped Purdue get our name out there.”
Jan. 16 was another early morning for the Boilermakers. Everybody had to be ready and in uniform by 6:45 a.m. to take the bus over to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Even though it was early, the team looked focused and had a lot of energy during warm-ups. After a great warm-up, the team waited for its name to be called for the semi-final round. There was a total of 20 teams in the division, the second largest in the competition, and only 11 would qualify for the final round.
Purdue went on to throw a solid routine and only had one drop. Even with the drop, the Boilermakers had one of the best routines in the division, and overall scored an 80.85 out of 100, placing them third in the semi-final round and qualifying for the final round.
“Our scores from the semi-final round surprised me a little bit,” Solberg said. “Overall, scores were much lower than the previous year, which was fine. The team didn’t want to know where they placed in semis, so I didn’t tell them. However, we were four points out of first place (Hofstra University), and we had a lot of catching up to do. Even though the semi-final scores don’t count towards finals, it’s the same judges, and they now knew our routines. We had to throw our best routine of the season to have a shot at winning.”
The team drew the second position in finals, but unlike the previous year, since it went early in semis, it was able to go back to the hotel and rest and relax before finals. This break definitely helped the team members recharge and mentally get focused for finals.
In finals, the Boilermakers had another great warm-up and went out for finals for their last performance ever as a team. As they waited for their name to be called, the team was ready to do something special. Purdue took the floor and did exactly what they had to do, perform their best routine of the season and have zero deductions. Purdue showed it was a great team.
“Since day one this team had a mission to be great,” senior Mallory Toombs said. “I think the best thing about this season was the feeling we had after we hit in finals. It is a feeling you can’t explain, but that’s when you realize the pain, sweat, tears, and all the hard work was worth every second. Making program history isn’t easy, but this team made it happen.”
The awards ceremony was nerve racking. Hearts were pounding as the team waited in anticipation to see if they were national champions. The favorite and two-time returning national champion, Hofstra University, had a drop in their routine, but had more difficulty. It was up to the judges to decide which routine they preferred. One by one, a team was announced. Then third place was announced, and it wasn’t Purdue. We now knew it was just us and Hofstra. Then in second place, we were announced and took some the silver medal.
“Even before the awards ceremony, I told the team it was going to be close,” Solberg said. “Even with their drop, we had a lot of points to make up to catch Hofstra. We did everything we could have done to catch them, and we almost did it. We were only seven tenths of a point out of first place.”
Taking home the silver medal marked the end of the team’s nationals journey. For some, this was the last time they would ever compete as a cheerleader.
“This was by far the most rewarding nationals experience in my four years,” senior Abby Montgomery said. “Our team meshed so well and although the weeks leading up to the competition were long and tiring, we enjoyed experiencing it together. I will forever cherish the memory of the pure joy and excitement that radiated between us after our final performance. I could not ask for a better way to end my final year on the team.”
“This has been an incredible journey,” senior Luke Smith said. “From the start of my first year and being an alternate on the team, to last year competing for the first time, and then this year going in with the mindset that we have a chance to win a national championship, it’s been a blessing to be on this team and be a part of this group.”
After earning a lot of high praise from other coaches and athletes, the team is already excited to get ready and make a run next year.
“The nationals journey truly reveals a person’s character,” said graduate student and first-year member Adam Taylor. “This team had it all, but we fell short. The journey was tough and grueling, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. What now? We rebuild. We will be champions.”
“Being so close to being national champions is tough to accept, but we are so proud of everything we have done,” coach Smith said. “These athletes represented Purdue so well down in Florida and I am very proud of each one of them. We are all ready to get back in the gym and start working towards next year.”
Competitive cheerleading really is a different experience. No matter what you have done in the past, it can’t prepare you for what you have to do to be successful on the nationals stage. But when all is said and done, we love what we do and we wouldn’t want it any other way.
“Cheerleading is unlike any other sport; you train all year for a two minute and thirty second routine,” sophomore Nina Deligio said. “You have one shot, and if you’re lucky two, to prove to the judges that you are the best team. The hardest part is that at no point do you know the ‘score,’ you never know if you’re winning or losing until the end. I gave up my fall break, most of my winter break, most weekends and practiced nearly every day of the week for two minutes and thirty seconds to become the second best small co-ed team in the nation, and I’d do it all over again.”
DIVISION I SMALL CO-ED FINAL RESULTS
3. Southeastern Louisiana
5. Penn State
6. George Mason
7. Central Michigan
8. Ball State
9. Akron (tie)
9. Arkansas State (tie)