Cheerleaders? At UC Santa Cruz?

Yes! Though little-known, the UCSC cheer squad supports Banana Slug teams with an upbeat attitude and fearless acrobatics

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Karen Pinon and Courtney Boudreaux get ready for a new school year of cheering on Banana Slug teams. 

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Josue Ambriz at the recent cheerleader tryouts on the East Field. (Photos by Peggy Townsend)

When most people say, "UCSC has a cheerleading team," they put a question mark at the end of the sentence.

"A lot of people on campus don't even know we exist," admitted Lai Saelee, a 19-year-old sociology major, as she sat amid tables of fencers and baseball players, signing up prospective squad members at the recent OPERS fall festival.

Whether because urging a slow-moving mollusk to "go, fight, win" seems like an impossible task or because UCSC is not considered a collegiate-sports powerhouse, the Banana Slug cheer squad has been something of a quiet presence on campus since it was formed in 1996.

But Cierra Hamilton (Kresge '14, linguistics and global economics) and Danny Williams (College Eight '15, psychology) want to change that.

The co-captains of the 20-person squad, who both confessed to upbeat and determined personalities, said they want to make more appearances at sports events and also compete at the USA Cheer College Nationals in March. Their plan is not only to put cheerleading in the spotlight but also to have it appreciated for the athletic work it is.

Dressed in a gold and navy blue uniform, Williams ticks off the sport's dangers: concussions, sprained ankles, broken wrists, black eyes, bloody noses.

"During a performance, people don't know how many times we've fallen or gotten smacked in the face," said Karen Piñon (Stevenson '15, psychology), who cheered at Santa Maria High School before coming to Santa Cruz. "They don't see the blood."

Indeed, cheerleading isn't your grandparents' pampered, pom-pom-waving activity any more. With moves like "liberties" and "basket tosses," today's yell leaders are more like top-notch acrobats.

UCSC's squad, for instance, consists of bases, back-spots, and fliers. Bases and back-spots are the strength positions. They support the fliers, who are tossed, confetti-like, into the air, where they perform an intricate trick before plunging back down to be caught by their teammates.

"Doing crazy, scary stuff is my thing," said 21-year-old Michelle Shirley, a biology and environmental studies major at College Eight who was a competitive gymnast in South Lake Tahoe before she became a flier on the UCSC squad.

In fact, fliers can be tossed so high, the Slug squad has to practice on racquetball courts "because they're the only rooms with a high-enough ceiling," explained cheer member Courtney Boudreaux (Stevenson '15, human biology).

With the inherent danger, hours of practice, and the fact cheerleaders must foot the $250 bill for their uniforms (which does not include pom-poms, bows, or sweatshirts), one might think it would be hard to find people willing to try out for the sport.

But on a recent Saturday, 19 women and one man were on the East Field learning routines, each vying for one of eight open spots on the team. Most had been cheerleaders at their high schools, and several said school pride and being part of a community drew them to the team.

"Cheer gives me a lot of life lessons," said Piñon as she watched potential squad members throwing right punches and high Vs. "There are things we might not be comfortable doing, but we do it anyway. It gives you a determination to stick with things."

The cheer squad "serves as a high-profile, energetic, positive reflection of UCSC students," said Kevin "Skippy" Givens, intramural sports and sports club advisor.

"The key difference between a 'powerhouse' sports-centered university and UCSC is that we are participatory. We emphasize getting out, getting involved, and being active instead of observing," Givens said. "The cheer team is a fantastic role model in that regard."

Peggy Townsend is a freelance writer based in Santa Cruz.