By I.A. Stewart
Three spotters are getting ready to hoist their mate several feet up in the air. As she soars upward, they brace to catch her.
The UC Santa Cruz cheerleading squad could not practice indoors today, where they have pads to alleviate some of the pain of a botched stunt. Today they practice on the Upper East Field.
"It’s OK," team captain Kourtney Andrada says. "The grass is pretty soft."
As the flyer comes falling back to earth, one of her supporters finds herself a step out of place, and the whole group comes tumbling down. They all get up laughing, but also trying to rub the pain out of their backs.
"That was terrible," Andrada says. "Try it again."
The cheerleading team is used to pulling itself up. Last year, the squad followed the men’s basketball team to only one away game, and had to endure the insults of a crowd that knew that cheerleaders and UCSC don’t exactly go hand in hand. But the team expects to return this season.
"The crowd there was laughing at us and was very rude," Andrada said. "It’s because we’re Santa Cruz, I guess. We’re not supposed to have cheerleaders."
It’s no secret that the students of UCSC have long prided themselves on a collective mentality that rejects the idea of a typical collegiate experience. School spirit at UCSC tends to come more in the form of poo-poo-ing the university’s athletic teams than in rah-rah-ing them. But at a school where counter-culture is often seen as mainstream, there in fact does exist a small niche of students who yearn for a traditional athletic presence. And the people who direct them, who urge the crowd on-call them the essence of school spirit-are those 14 women (and one man) standing courtside at the basketball games, kicking, jumping and cheering.
The fact that UCSC has a cheerleading squad-a truth that few are indeed aware of-seems to fly in the face of all that so many find endearing, unique, and radical about the campus. Cheerleading is, after all, a trademark of the institution of varsity sports-of letterman jackets and ‘win one for the gipper’ and ‘fight on.’ When the cheerleading team came into existence 21 years ago (along with the bleachers at the West Field House), students cried foul, claiming cheerleaders represented a blatant violation of UCSC’s founding ideals. Everything about UCSC’s tradition seems to reject the Cals and the USCs and the Michigans when it comes to sports-heck, we call our teams the Slugs. But, even if some wish they weren’t, there they are, in short skirts, doing kicks after made baskets, chanting and clapping in unison.
"It’s definitely our own little thing," Andrada said of her cheer team. "There’s not really much support for us out there."
The truth is that the cheerleaders’ sole purpose is not to root the basketball team on. The squad, which operates as a club team under the department of the Office of Physical Education, Recreation and Sports (OPERS), competes in tournaments against cheer teams from other universities. Showing up at the basketball games is considered practice for most of the team.
"Basketball is really our preparation for the competition season," said Danielle Frazier, an Oakes student who has been on the squad for two years.
Last year, the squad placed first at the Sharp competition in Las Vegas out of a field of fifteen or so teams. But due to poor fundraising and a lack of funding from OPERS, the Vegas trip was the only competition the team could travel to.
The cheer team is considered a Tier II club under OPERS. Tier I teams-rugby, baseball and lacrosse-receive over $1,000 a year thanks to last spring’s student referendum bill.
Skippy Givens, the head of club sports and intramurals, explained that those teams are deemed Tier I because they have the opportunity to play for a national championship, keep a roster of over ten players, travel extensively, and generally have a longer history on campus. Givens explained that the cheer team, which meets most of the requirements for Tier I status, fell just short, because they "just didn’t have that history of competitiveness in the past." So, the team operates on a budget of $500 from OPERS-exactly the same team budget as the squad received in 1986. The team relies almost exclusively on fundraising efforts.
"They put a lot of effort into it, and it shows," Givens said. "Considering the lack of funding and facilities, they actually do a fantastic job."
Not everyone is so enamored with the team’s ability to cope with its conditions.
Elise Benninghofen was on the UCSC cheer team for less than a month during her freshman year. Benninghofen cheered competitively in high school, and was immediately disappointed in the conditions under which the UCSC squad was forced to practice.
"Cheer at UCSC is much smaller and doesn’t have the funds to do as much traveling as I was used to," Benninghofen said via e-mail. "When we started practicing we didn’t even have mats in the gym. When you’re doing stunts or basket tosses, you need them."
Most members of the team were drawn in by the athleticism involved in stunting-throwing the girls up in the air-which is not nearly as prevalent during the basketball games as it is in the routines the team puts together for the competitions. In fact, this year the cheerleading squad has designed a fitness workout routine with Ryan Andrews, director of the UCSC Wellness Center, which the team members have to pass in order to compete on the team.
"Cheer was interesting to me because it involves a lot of strength," Andy Logan, a first-year cheerleader, said. "To throw girls in air, it’s pretty demanding."
But the other part of cheerleading, the chanting and clapping and short skirts, definitely seems to carry a stigma that the team has had trouble trying to shake.
"When people hear that we have a cheerleading team, they tend to assume [that the cheerleaders fit] the stereotype," Andrada said. "They’ll say ‘How’d you get in college?’ and assume that everyone on the team is an airhead. You just have to brush it off."
According to Andrada, the team usually loses a significant number of girls during the season because they are unhappy with the support and recognition they receive on campus. In fact only three members of last year’s team returned to cheer again this year.
The cheerleaders all say that they have had to deal with some degree of heckling from people around campus, both at and away from basketball games. For Logan, the lone male cheerleader, the satisfaction he gets from cheering has certainly come with its share of teasing.
"My close friends are really supportive of me doing cheerleading," Logan said. "Considering I’m the only guy on squad, that’s good. My guy friends will laugh and say it’s pretty lame, though. But I brush it off. It doesn’t really bother me."
At home games, the crowd seems fairly indifferent toward the cheerleaders. Some of those in attendance applaud the halftime routine while others snicker. One such onlooker, who wished not to give her name, said that she could do without the cheerleaders, and went on to say that the team’s routines were "pretty stupid."
Logan was disappointed by the crowd’s indifference at his first game.
"I went to the team’s alumni game, even though we didn’t have to cheer," Logan said. "We would yell out cheers, but crowd didn’t really get involved in it. Cheerleaders try to get people pumped up, but it seems like the people don’t care to join in with the cheers."
Andrada said that part of the reason for cheering at home games is to help give the team experience performing in front of a crowd-something the team will have to do when they compete at national tournaments.
"It can be pretty uncomfortable when people aren’t clapping," Andrada said. "It would be a disappointment if it seemed as if we weren’t giving enough."
Katherine Stroud was a member of UC Berkeley’s dance team (they do not technically call themselves cheerleaders) for two years. During her time at Cal, the athletic programs underwent something of a renaissance, as the football team became a national power and attendance and support for athletics surged.
"When the team started winning, we’d [the cheerleaders] feel like we were making more of an impact on the game," Stroud said. "We felt like a part of a bigger camaraderie that athletics provided. When they weren’t doing well, and the fans weren’t cheering, we’d still try to cheer them on, but it could get disheartening."
Stroud described how much it meant to her and her fellow cheerleaders when the crowd would react to them and applaud their efforts.
"When the fans would acknowledge us it made a big difference," Stroud said. "We practiced so much to do a good job. It makes a big difference when the football team makes it known that we are doing something for them."
UC Santa Cruz’s support for athletics pales in comparison to schools like Cal, but for the most part, according to freshman cheerleader Stephanie Roberts, the people who attend home games don’t bother her.
"People who do support our sports will usually support cheer," Roberts said.
Lauren Cardinelli, one of the assistant coaches for the UCSC women’s basketball team, was in attendance for the men’s game against Holy Names last Saturday. Cardinelli is fairly sympathetic toward the cheerleaders.
"You can’t hate them for coming out here and performing," Cardinelli said. "You can’t be mad at people for doing something they want to do."
The members of the UCSC cheer team know that their school was founded on an ideal which included downplaying competitive sports. And few seem to want it to change. They only want support for the activity that they so enjoy.
"Every school in California has its reputation," Logan said. "Santa Barbara is the party school. Berkeley is smart. We’re the hippies. Having a cheer squad contradicts the hippie stereotype, but that’s a good thing. We could still have our hippies, but also have people who are into sports and the school spirit thing."
Benninghofen echoed these sentiments.
"Santa Cruz is great, I was happy that the school wasn’t obsessed with sports," she said. "But I think that a little more school spirit could really benefit a lot of the students who are jealous of their friends at schools like USC or UCLA, who go to big games to yell and scream and get excited about their college."
Givens sees the school as opening up more and more to athletics, and believes that many people who think that having a cheerleading squad misrepresents the values of the student body at large are misinformed about what UCSC is all about.
"It’s common for people to have a predetermined idea about what’s in existence at UCSC," Givens said. "For instance, a guy came in and told me he wanted to start a hockey team, but he didn’t know if anyone would join. So we’re chatting, and I say, ‘Why don’t you put up some flyers?’ He does this, and he comes up with four goalies! You can never overestimate what’s going on within the student body."
In her time at Cal, Stroud saw first-hand how fundamentally intertwined support for her cheerleading team and support for the athletics teams were. But even still, Stroud points out that several schools with less-than-stellar athletic programs can have very successful and popular cheerleading teams. What allows that to happen, she says, is support from the student body.
"When the fans are backing [the cheerleading team], that makes what we do that much more likely to have people want to be a part of it," Stroud said.
Even if it seems unlikely that the student body will come to embrace athletics the way Cal or USC do, members of the cheerleading team hope that students will at least be willing to support what they do.
"The funny part of UCSC is that there is a lot of labeling and contradiction going on in the student body," Benninghofen said. "’Open minded students who love that the school is known as a hippie haven don’t care much for the SoCal yuppies-I can say that, I’m from there-who hate the hippie reputation. So, how about wearing your Birkenstocks to a basketball game once in a while? Who cares!? We’re in college, we’re supposed to be educated enough to be tolerant."