Taking an in-depth look at the University of Regina cheerleading team and its amazing season
The University of Regina cheerleading team has had plenty of reasons to cheer this season.
And now, with the season wrapped up, the squad has the chance to sit back and properly reflect on all of its accomplishments. This season, the U of R won an international title, two national titles, had a couple other top finishes, raised a lot of money, and even hosted its own successful cheerleading competition.
Suffice it to say, for an organization that had previously only won two national titles since it started up in 2000, this year was one for the record books.
“I would say this is one of the best years the U of R has had as a program,” said Thomas Rath, the U of R’s cheerleading head coach. “There have been some very exciting years before, but we’ve progressively grown more competitive each year. We’re definitely growing every year in talent.”
“It’s so exciting,” said Ashley Herchak, a rookie on the cheer squad. “Once you win something on this level, it makes you feel really good and that you’re really part of a team.”
The first competition Regina took part in this year was the 2010 university and open national cheerleading championships in Brampton, Ont., early in December. It was an event which boasted 19 collegiate teams from across Canada. The U of R competed in two divisions: collegiate small co-ed team (small schools with both boys and girls) and collegiate quad (four members compete). Regina picked up a national title in each.
In the five-team small co-ed team division, the U of R racked up 783.5 points to finish almost 40 points ahead of the next competitor. They scored 83.5 points and finished over 10 points ahead of second-place Carleton in the three-team collegiate quad division. It was not only the first time the U of R has picked up multiple national titles during the same meet, but it was Regina’s second national title in both of the divisions ever.
“The celebration after was pretty fun,” said Rath. “It’s always good to come home with two national titles under your belt.
“Nationals have always been big for me – trying to represent your school within Canada. It’s something huge for me and something I take a lot of pride in.”
After taking the rest of December off for finals and holidays, the cheer squad began preparing for two international competitions in February. The first was the Cheersport nationals, Feb. 18-20, in Atlanta, Ga., followed by the USA collegiate nationals, Feb. 26-28, in Anaheim, Cali.
At the Cheersport nationals, which is the biggest cheerleading competition in the world, there were around 20,000 athletes and over 1,000 teams this year. The U of R was in the collegiate co-ed team level 6 division. Regina finished fourth out of six teams. Rath was happy with the team’s performance, especially because of some of the circumstances they were up against.
“At Cheersport, we were up against teams that have 10 or 12 guys and we only have one,” he said. “A lot of co-ed teams down there take as many guys to competitions as possible. To get fourth is a testament to how good our team is.
“Also, I don’t even think some of the schools were schools. There was the University of Louisville Gym Time. The Gym Time at the end of it means it’s an all-star team. They take some athletes who aren’t in college and stick them on the collegiate team. It’s a little fishy.”
Next, the U of R achieved an international milestone at the USA nationals, which included hundreds of teams. Regina’s collegiate group stunt team finished first out of three teams, helping Regina capture its first international title ever. Regina’s small co-ed team also broke a record, earning the school’s highest international team finish ever, as they finished third in the five-team divison.
“Winning our first international title was a pretty huge victory for us, but the third-place finish was just as big in my mind,” said Rath. “Those teams down in the States can come from different breeds. They live it – they start it early on and they have highly competitive teams early on. Some schools in the States have amazing teams in elementary school. We don’t really get highly competitive teams until high school. The States breeds awesome cheerleaders.”
A Young Team
What makes the success of the U of R cheer team even more unbelievable is their lack of collegiate experience.
The team is made up of approximately 23 members, and 15 of these are rookies. Out of the 15 rookies, 13 are in their first year. In this case, it looks like youth has trumped experience.
“Did I expect us to win nationally and internationally? No, I actually didn’t think we’d pull it off that well,” said Rath. “With so many rookies, I didn’t think we’d win much. I thought, maybe if I could retain all of these rookies for the 2011-12 season we could win nationals. Lo and behold, they did it this year. It’s a pretty rocking year for a lot of those rookies to be on this good of a team.”
Of course, though they are labeled as a rookie, it does not mean these members of the U of R squad were inexperienced. Many of the cheerleaders had previous experience, whether it was at the high school level or a club. Plus, the inviting atmosphere created by Regina’s veterans helped the rookies adapt.
As a rookie, Herchak certainly noticed it.
“It wasn’t that bad of an adjustment, because all of the veterans were really nice and super helpful,” said the 18-year-old arts student. “It’s not hostile at all at practice. Everyone’s there to help everyone else. It was mostly a fun experience.”
The athletes were not the only ones on the team with a lack of collegiate experience. It was the first full year of coaching at the collegiate level for Rath, who was a member of the cheerleading team as an athlete from 2004-08. The same holds true for his two assistant coaches: Janessa Rath (his wife), who was on the team from 05-06 and Jade Baiton, who competed on the team in the 05-09 campaign.
“I was an assistant coach for the second half of last year,” said Rath. “I stepped in last year because their head coach Nicole Bidwell had to leave halfway during the season. I stepped in with her assistant coach at the time, Mishayla Potts, and we kind of did the remaining part of the year. It was good because I got my feet wet and then was able to overhaul a lot of the internal stuff.
“Our coaching staff this year has worked awesome together. We all have a slight different style. Some are nice and some are mean. It balances out quite nice.”
It appears that Regina has sent a message to the cheerleading world: if you want to win, go with rookies.
Lots of hard work
If there is anyone who thinks the success of the U of R cheerleading squad has come easily, they are sorely mistaken.
It has taken a lot of hard work and dedication. Members of the team have to attend practices, fundraise and help out in the community, all the while attending classes and jobs.
The life of a cheerleader is hardly a cakewalk, though this is not exactly the common perception of them.
“I never think we get enough credit,” said Herchak. “People think cheerleading’s kind of like a dance-y sport and nothing is really involved in it. They assume we’re like the people who cheer on the sidelines. We do this, but most people don’t realize what stunting involves and how far cheerleading has actually come since just standing on the sideline.
“[Being a cheerleader] can be hectic. It’s really hard to balance university in itself, plus cheerleading, plus your social life.”
Cheerleading is basically an 11-month season for the U of R. The team holds several camps and clinics during the summer months. Once school gets underway, they practice three times a week for a few hours at a time. Most of the training is cheerleading-specific. Throw in a couple of competitions during the season, and it is clear to see that there are a lot of physical elements to cheerleading.
“We’re lifting people – it’s not like we’re just dancing around,” said Herchak. “You need some type of athleticism to do what we do.”
Perhaps an even bigger burden than the training involved is the money. While the U of R, the U of R Students’ Union and various corporations sponsor the team, members of the team are expected to each shell out $1,000-2,000 from their own pocket for various expenses. Because of this, many of the cheerleaders have to work jobs to pay for cheerleading, school and other expenses.
“[Cheerleading’s] unfortunately considered a student club. It’s not really an official team of the university, so we’re not in the budget,” he said. “There are no official dollars to go to us. I’m more than willing to make this a core program. I would love to be a full-time coach of this team and for it to be a full program.”
The expenses would be vastly more for the cheerleading team if it did not fundraise consistently.
“We host our own camp for high school and elementary teams, get some money for Rams games, make community appearances, do carwashes, and go as far as standing outside and asking for donations,” said Rath. “We’re not below anything.”
The team’s major fundraiser is the U of R cheerleading competition, a tournament they host for elementary, high school, club, and other teams across Saskatchewan and neighbouring provinces. At this year’s tournament, held in March, around 2,000 spectators and 1,000 competitors turned up.
When it comes down to it, cheerleading is a huge time commitment. Not just for the athletes, but the coaches as well. All three have to work other jobs while coaching.
Rath summed up what it was like to be a cheerleader.
“I don’t like to call [cheerleaders] athletes in a sport. They’re athletes in a lifestyle,” he said. “They live it because they have to. You almost have to really want to be on the team so much to offer what they do and sacrifice some of that extra social time and freedom. There’s a lot of sacrifice there.”
Becoming a member
The U of R cheerleading team has done some great things for Rath.
“The cheerleading team is where I met Janessa. We started dating that year and eventually got married,” he said. “The cheer team has given me so much. Pretty much all of my friends now are cheerleaders and my wife’s a cheerleader. It’s in my blood now. “
And, while Rath cannot promise you will meet your future partner on the team, there are plenty of other reasons to get involved on the U of R cheer team.
“It’s really fun,” he said. “These guys sacrifice a lot, but they wouldn’t if it wasn’t one of the most enjoyable things that they are doing in their life. The team is great, and the sport is really fun. I’ve been in all kinds of different sports from basketball, rugby, football – the macho man kind of sports – and this is by far one of the funnest things I’ve done. I know all of the athletes enjoy their time. We try to do as many team bonding activities as we can and I know a lot of these girls make friendships.
“There’s a lot of alumni out there and there’s a good community behind us. You’re not just friends with the current team. The alumni have been in the same shoes as everyone else in regards to the struggle and sacrifice. There’s a common respect.”
“We’re definitely a family,” added Herchak. “Even if you don’t have experience, it’s fun to come out and learn something different. Going to places like Atlanta and Anaheim for competitions is super fun. It involves so many athletic aspects like tumbling, dancing and stunting. It’s just a great experience for everyone … boys included.”
This year, the U of R cheer squad is holding tryouts for everyone – current members included – on April 30, noon to 4 p.m., at the main gym. A second tryout is to be held on May 8, 4-6 p.m., at the Rebels Cheerleading facility at 296 Henderson Drive. It is possible to make the team as a walk-on during the season, but Rath advises attending these tryouts if possible. For more information, visit uofrcheer.com, or contact Rath by phone (777-1641) or via email (email@example.com).
Seeing as the U of R cheerleading team is on top of the world, you would not think they could go much higher.
“I’m hoping we can make it a dynasty while I’m here,” said Rath. “Cheerleading is interesting. Where we are is great – I’m not saying we’re not good – but there’s so much room to grow and every year, every other team grows as well. It’s such an involving sport.”
Do the athletes concur with that sentiment?
“I definitely agree with that,” said Herchak “We had a really good year and we had a lot of rookies on the team. All of the rookies are going to be veterans now. Everyone knows their place and they can help each other out. The more experience you have, the better it’s going to be.”