Cheerleaders contribute similar amounts of time to practicing their discipline, but the ORU cheer team does not compete on a weekly basis like other sports.
The ORU cheer team uses performances at games and other campus events to refine and prepare for Nationals, its one competition of the year. Having only one competition requires a high level of focus and a consistent and concerted effort throughout the year.
“You’re not running around for 40 minutes like basketball, or playing nine innings of baseball,” said John Michael Arriola, a senior on the cheer squad.
“You are only out there for two and a half minutes when you are competing, and you are out there by yourself. It’s based on the judges.”
Nationals offer one opportunity to compete and win a cheer championship.
“Everything is built up to this one competition and this is our one shot,” said McKayla Merrell, a sophomore ORU cheerleader. “It puts a lot of pressure on you because you have to hit it perfectly that one time.”
Bringing home a cheer championship is preceded by a championship effort in training.
“We practice three to four times a week, Tuesday morning and Thursday morning practice for two hours, a Thursday afternoon practice for three hours, and a two hour Friday practice,” said Arriola.
The ORU cheerleading squad puts in at least eight hours of practice per week. Home basketball games and choreography add to the workload.
“Sometimes we have our choreographer here, and we spend twenty hours practicing that week,” said Merrell.
“Consistency is one of the toughest things in cheerleading,” said Merrell. “You can learn how to do a bunch of things and hit it one time, but if you do it ten times, you may only hit it three out of ten times.”
Cheerleaders must practice regularly to develop proper technique that translates to consistently accurate stunting.
“With cheer, you are doing the same things over and over again. It all depends on technique,” said Stephen Guzman, a senior ORU cheerleader.
“If your technique is off, you will not [perform the stunt]. The girl will fall, and you will be embarrassed in front of everybody.”
Performing cheer skills requires physical rigor comparable to other highly strenuous sports.
“It surprised me how physically exhausting it could be and how beat up you can get,” said Arriola. “I wrestled a lot in high school, and those were really intense practices, but cheerleading sneaks up on you. Getting hit by a girl falling from ten feet kind of hurts.”
April Polk, ORU’s cheerleading coach, is not new to championship-caliber cheerleading. She cheered at Stephen F. Austin for three years and helped win three national championships. Polk’s winning attitude translates to her coaching style.
“I expect my athletes to be athletes, to come in ready to work hard,” said Polk.
One of her passions is working with the cheerleading team at benefit events.
“One [outreach] we do every year is the Buddy Walk for Down Syndrome,” said Polk. “We also are out there for muscular dystrophy. When they have a walk, we are out there. We did the Saint Jude Give Thanks Walk. Any time events like that come up where we can be out with kids and families, we are there.”
The high volume of time together creates strong team chemistry.
“We are pretty close knit; we get along pretty well,” said Arriola. “It’s like a big machine. There is a bunch of stuff going on at once but it just makes sense.”
The ORU Cheer Team will soon compete at Nationals, held in Daytona Beach, Fla. on April 10-11.