UK Cheer and Dance teams to compete at Nationals

The Kentucky cheerleaders dance around before the game against Mississippi State on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky won 80-72. Photo by Jordan Prather | Staff

Braden Ramsey

During brisk fall nights at Kroger Field and afternoon action at Rupp Arena this year, fans undoubtedly noticed a number of differences. Fewer spectators in the stands was the most glaring, but it wasn’t the only notable change.

Both UK’s cheer and dance teams were unable to serve in a similar capacity on CATurdays in 2020-21 to past seasons due to COVID-19 protocols. Fortunately for them, the limited public display hasn’t affected their ability to prepare for the national championship competition.

Typically, both the cheerleading and dance national title events would have taken place at or near the end of January. That’s when the 2019-20 events were held, before any true worry of COVID-19 becoming rooted in U.S. society had become widespread.

It’s also when UK cheer failed to bring home the UCA Championship title for the first time since 2016, finishing in third place. This wouldn’t seem tragic to most programs, but as the consensus gold standard – 24 titles in 35 years speak the loudest of volumes – it almost seems unfathomable.

However, they’re not anticipating that result again this season. When first-year head cheer coach Ryan Martin O’Connor spoke to the media last Tuesday, she provided a vote of confidence in this year’s bunch.

“We’re grateful for the chance to get to go in person to Orlando … and compete for our 25th national title,” she said. “Our team is looking really good right now. I feel very confident … I feel more nervous about the travel and COVID policies and procedures than anything related to our performance … we’re in a really good spot.”

The squad was thrown a last-minute curveball, though. Just about three weeks ago, O’Connor learned the scoring system would be somewhat unconventional compared to previous years.

“Our score will be 50/50 with two days [of competition] combined, instead of a semifinals/finals format,” she said. “Both days will count and count equally, which is new for us.”

The usual weight system, 25/75, placed a larger emphasis on teams’ second day performances. Now, according to UK senior and cheer squad member Chas Welte, the key is elite repetition.

“A lot of importance has been placed on consistency rather than going out and hitting the best routine on day two,” he said. “We want the best routine every single time and always look forward to the next routine being better than the last.”

In the unfamiliar position of not coming into the tournament as defending champions, it wouldn’t be a surprise to hear of a changed mindset ahead of routines. It presented problems initially, but the team has worked through them.

“This is Chas and I’s first time coming off of a loss,” senior Riley Aguiar said. “I think that changes the mentality a little bit. People seem to be more nervous, but our mindset is to forget the past and focus on what we know how to do … when we started doing that, it built a lot of confidence for everyone.”

The dance team’s experience has mirrored the cheer squad’s, and like O’Connor, head coach Dawn Walters believes her crew is prepared.

“We’re ready … I’m excited and ready for us to go,” she said. “We feel confidence, we’re excited to go … let’s do this.”

While the cheer competition also shifted scoring from 25/75 to 50/50, Walters believes it has less of an impact on dance, due to the nature of their performances and overall scoring scale.

“Most teams are so consistent that it’s kind of just a give or take on day one or day two, unlike cheer, where someone may fall or a big stunt doesn’t hit,” she said. “There’s not as much of a risk … just by the basics of how dance routines kind of roll.”

Regardless of the sport, chemistry is imperative. The team was only able to practice via Zoom early in the year, which made it difficult to build the necessary camaraderie.

“For a little bit, I was just kind of like, this is going to be tough. These kids don’t know each other that well,” Walters said. “Now, if you all were to see these kids, you would have sworn they’ve known each other for years [and] have been around each other forever … it’s been really neat as a coach to really watch.”

Walters gave immense credit to the seniors on the squad, such as Nicole Kaeka and Olivia Dickerson, who expressed a desire to pay things forward.

“We wanted to make sure that they had the most normal year as they could and got to know us the way we knew our seniors and everybody else on the team,” Dickerson said. “We wanted to make sure we were all one cohesive team, and nobody felt like they got the short end of the stick because it was [the] COVID year.”

Kaeka reiterated just how important having chemistry is to putting on a quality performance, reminiscing on teams that lacked the attribute to demonstrate why she and Dickerson, among others, were not going to let this team exist without it.

“[We’ve] experienced teams where you’re not close, and it doesn’t work,” senior Nicole Kaeka said. “You don’t get as much accomplished [and] people aren’t as confident… experiencing those kind of teams in the past have made us really want to develop a relationship with the underclassmen … [and let] them know that we’re here for them.”

Both teams departed for Orlando the evening of Sunday, April 25, and they compete on Tuesday and Wednesday before returning to Lexington on Thursday.