Taking the Tumble: First time cheerleaders join Keene State squad
KEENE, N.H. 11/29/11 – Two days away from making their debut, they nervously walked into the expansive, tranquil gym that would be their home for the next three and half months. Although they got a limited taste of their surroundings a few days earlier with a dress rehearsal women’s basketball game, that weekend, Nov. 18-19, was the big test for the 2011-12 edition of the Keene State women’s cheerleading team – an intense schedule of four games in two days.
Would their pyramid hold up? Would their dance steps be in sync? Would they remember all the words to their cheers? So much to do in so little time.
For the past few weeks they had sequestered themselves in an upstairs gym room, diligently learning the tricks of their trade. Under the watchful and discerning eye of first-year coach Kevin Thompson, they learned to tumble, practiced pyramids, and deciphered dance steps. Now was the time to add the sound system – the vocal cheers that would accompany their stunts and dances, the positive chants of inspiration, strong enough to get Owl fans out of their new seat-back chairs and carry Keene State basketball teams to victory.
This year’s Keene State cheerleading team is for the most part new to the game. While seven cheered last season, 13 will be kicking up their heels on the Spaulding Gym floor for the first time. Among those 13 are four raw rookies who had never cheered before: Chelsea I’Anson, a junior from Pelham, N.H., sophomores Jamie Glynn (Southwick, Mass.) and Amber Beam (Keene, N.H.), and Caitlin Sanford, a freshman from Shelton, Conn.
Called up in groups of threes and fours, they were given the simple instruction to cheer like they were at a game. “I took it for granted that they knew what to do, ” said Thompson, a Deerfield, Mass., native, who took over the Keene State cheering team after spending nine years as the head coach of the UMass-Amherst program. “All the new cheerleaders had puzzled looks on their faces.”
The lack of a summer camp coupled with the late arrival of Thompson has the cheerleading team playing catch-up as they prepare for their season. Thomas called on Jenna Recko, the team's junior captain from Webster, Mass., to give a demonstration.
“I just showed them how to cheer for a crowd,” said Recko, who works for Universal Cheerleaders Association, which teaches, choreographs, and judges competition at summer camps throughout the Northeast. “I really like helping everyone, especially the cheerleaders who are new to the team.”
Similar to Keene State varsity athletes who are schooled in their respective sports at the high school and club level, the majority of Owl cheerleaders got their training prior to their arrival on campus. Some, like Recko and Alyssa Perregaux, a freshman from Torrington, Conn., come to KSC with impressive cheering resumes. Recko was an eight-time state finalist and a New England and national champion who appeared on ESPN, while Perregaux was a Universal Cheering Association All-American and coach of the 2009 national champion Torrington Warriors squad.
While I’Anson, Glynn, Beam, and Sanford have backgrounds in either gymnastics or dance, the four had different reasons for trying their hand at cheerleading. “I wanted to stay involved with sports, and cheerleading was the next closest way to do that,” said I’ Anson, who started and competed on the gymnastic team at Pelham High.
“I wanted to do something other than schoolwork,” said Glynn, who ran track at Tolland-Southwick Regional High School.
Getting ready for open-tryouts, Coach Thompson wasn’t quite sure what to expect. “The first hurdle was finding out what I had for talent,” he said.
Because he was concerned about the trust factor involved in building stunts, Thompson used criteria such as jumping, dancing, and tumbling ability to judge each candidate. He also made up some cheers for them to recite.
While the returnees stood out, Thompson said he saw something in each of the inexperienced girls that could help the team. “You’re looking for the right team dynamics,” he said.
All four were excited to find out they would be Keene State cheerleaders. “I think I jumped as high as I’ve ever done when I found out,” said I’ Anson. “I’m a quiet person, so I was nervous about doing the cheers.”
“When I first started the tryouts, I didn’t feel like a cheerleader,” said Sanford, a dance major who attended the Greenwich Ballet Academy. “Everyone had bows in their hair and I just looked like a normal person working out.”
Thompson said one of the toughest parts of the job is telling someone they didn’t make the team. “I always feel bad,” he said. “I tell them right to their face in case they want to ask questions. But I hate every minute of it.”
With the team finally selected, it was time to go to work. One of the hardest stunts to learn is the pyramid – a human configuration of bodies that’s capped off by a flier, who must maintain her balance by doing a toe-touch in mid-air. “They made me a flier and I’m terrified of heights,” said Beam, a diver on the KSC swim team last year. “The first couple of days I was shaking.”
Glynn is on the ground, serving as a back spotter. “It’s nerve-wracking because I control the whole pyramid,” she said. “Knowing that a girl could come right down on me can be a little scary.”
The newcomers got plenty of support from team veterans. “I joined the team last year, so I can really sympathize with them,” said Breanna Vacca, a sophomore captain from Medway, Mass. “I think they were intimidated at first, but now we’re already so close.”
Like any team getting accustomed to new players, not to mention a first-year coach, it takes time for things to gel. “They were tired by the end of the weekend, but I thought the last game was their best showing so far,” said Thompson. “I think some got more than they bargained for, but it was a good start.”
“I was really nervous before the first game, but once I got the hang of it, things went a lot smoother,” said Sanford. “It was a long weekend, but I enjoyed it.”
“The best part has been getting to know all the girls and learning how to work well with them,” said Glynn. “It’s already been such a great experience. I love doing something completely new.”