By Mark Maloney
MOREHEAD, Ky. - They've put in the time and effort. Hours upon hours devoted to stunting and tumbling, mixed with specific cardio drills and lifting weights. Now, everything boils down to how well the Morehead State University cheerleaders execute for 2.5 minutes. The Eagles, who include former Bell County High School cheerleader and MSU freshman Sidney Barnett (pictured), left by bus Wednesday, Jan. 11, for the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fla., site of this weekend's Universal Cheerleaders Association (UCA) College Cheerleading National Championship.
The MSU All-Girl squad is three-time defending national champion in Division I, and the Eagles' co-ed squad will be shooting for a second straight title. Morehead is a UCA dynasty, having produced 39 national championships since 1988. "I'm excited about the progress we've made, especially in the last few days," Coach Mark Coleman said Tuesday. "We've been training for these routines for almost a month now. And, the last week of preparation, we kind of switched gears from practices – each team normally practices two hours, twice a day – but this final week we shift gears to performing the routines and getting out in front of audiences. So we've had performances almost every day for the past week now, and they've been steadily improving. And then we just had performances this morning at one of the local elementary schools, and both teams hit their routines. Really strong performances." First up for MSU, on Friday, will be Nick Lutz and Jessie Ayala. They qualified first, based on videos submitted, in partner stunt competition. The Championships continue Saturday and Sunday. Lutz and Ayala also compete on a co-ed team that will be operating with nine males and seven females, plus three male alternates and two female alternates. MSU's all-girl squad has 20 on the floor, plus four alternates. Kelsey Davis, a fifth-year senior out of Simon Kenton High School, is one of MSU's few all-girl members to have experienced nationals before. "We are a very young team this year – I think about 13 or 14 actual, real freshmen on the team," she said. "But we have worked really, really hard to get where we are and we're ready to defend our title. And it will be four (in a row), and that's never been done at Morehead all-girl before." West Georgia has been MSU's toughest all-girl competition in recent years, Coleman says. But he also expects Hofstra, Eastern Kentucky, Northern Kentucky and Delaware to be solid. In co-ed, Coleman sees Delaware as the top threat, and includes Wichita State and Sacramento State among the contenders. MSU cheerleaders are well aware of the tradition they try to uphold. "The practice room we have, we have all the banners hanging up – all the years past that we've won and everything," said Christian Vias, a well-muscled male from Castle Rock, Colo. "It's kind of cool because every single year you always have people on the team that have won with this squad before, so they know how to talk to the team and let the team know – for people that haven't competed with Morehead." "There's always that pressure of being a part of a dynasty and knowing that there's a long, rich tradition behind it. Along with that, there's the pressure of always wanting to do it for the alumni and the people standing right next to you. Not too much pressure of failing. But we prepare to win the national championship, not just go down there and hope to win." Vias, a fifth-year junior, transferred to MSU after two years at Shelton State Community College in Alabama. His coach there, Christa Grizzle Sanford, cheered and coached for MSU. After a talk with her, Vias decided Morehead was the place for him. Yes, cheerleading does bring folks to campus. Skilled folks. "Extremely talented team across the board, both co-ed and all-girl, that we brought from all over the country," Vias said. "We have people from 22 different states, I believe." A home-grown co-ed member is Katrina Perkins, a senior from Gallatin County. She says the shadow of 39 national titles brings both pressure and confidence. "It puts pressure on me to live up to the expectation that Morehead holds, but I think it's a really good thing," Perkins said. "I know that other people are expecting me to go down there and to do good, and they're expecting the team to do good. But it also makes me confident. We come from such a great, amazing program and such a great school that has this tradition that we have. So it just makes me super-confident to go down there and just bring back another title." Before honing in for the last month on the routines they will perform this weekend, the MSU squads prepared by mastering fundamentals. Just as with any sport, difficult skills come only after learning the basics. Aside from three practices a week, the cheerleaders spent individual time in the gym and weight room. Repetition is key. Coleman says he has tried to pack as much as possible into the Nationals routines. "So the transitions are a little bit quicker. And the skills are still extremely difficult," he said. "I think we've spent the majority of our time adjusting to that pace, adjusting to the skills. It's one thing to do an elite skill. It's another thing to do multiple elite skills. It's a whole other thing to put all kinds of elite skills and leap pyramids and tumbling all into a 2 ½-minute routine." But there are no worries. Just great expectations, Coleman says. "I feel like if both of our teams go out there and do the routines that they're capable of doing – I'm not going to say we're going to be unbeatable, but I think we'll be fine."
MSU Athletics Photo