“A lot of people assume that what we do on the sidelines or during timeouts at the games is all we can do, when really we have much more talent than that,” said Church Hill’s Kayle Gibson.
Six local student-athletes – Elizabethton’s Taylor Bowers, Church Hill’s Tianna Poirier, Blountville’s Abby Rose VanBuren, Limestone’s Megan Tipton, Kingsport’s Ellison Lyons and Gibson – are part of the East Tennessee State University Cheer Team, which had a record-breaking season, finishing fourth in the Universal Cheerleaders Association National Championship Division 1 All-Girl competition last month in Orlando.
Coach Van VanEaton said it was the highest finish in ETSU history, and the first time the team had managed to make it past the challenging semifinal cut. While nerves always play a part when you’re cheering in front of thousands of people, on ESPN and ESPN2 no less, team members said they knew they’d broken the barrier as soon as they finished their semifinal run.
“I was very confident that we would make it into finals. Our coaches had told us over and over that all we could do was perform the routine to the best of our abilities. We did that. All of our stunts and pyramids hit, and I could tell there was a great reaction from the crowd. It was just a gut feeling. I knew we would make it to finals,” said Bowers, who cheered at Elizabethton High School before moving on to ETSU.
Tipton, a David Crockett graduate in her third year with the Bucs, agreed.
“After we hit our routine, I thought we had a good chance, but it didn’t really feel real until we heard our name being called as a finalist,” she said. “Our team worked so hard. Having great coaches and support helped us break through and make school history!”
National competition for cheerleading falls right in the middle of basketball season – the team’s busiest time of year. It requires already busy student-athletes to juggle even more.
“Cheerleading can be a little bit time consuming,” Gibson said. “It gets a little crazy during nationals and basketball season, which can make it hard to maintain being a student, having a social life, and then some of us work too.”
But these girls are committed. Not just to the university, but to each other and their sport.
“My favorite thing about this team would be the group of girls and the dedication that each one brings to the team. Something that may not be known to many people is that we are not on scholarship, and I love the sense of commitment that comes from that. We are a part of the team, because we worked hard and we all share the same love for cheerleading,” said Bowers.
To do it well, you have to be all in – and this team is.
“We have two seasons: football and basketball. We attend cheer camp in July, practice two days a week for three hours starting in August and ending in April, cheer games, and have appearances we go to throughout the community anytime of the year. We cheer all of football, all of men’s and women’s basketball conference and tournament games,” Poirier explained.
“Nationals season for us is during basketball season, so our practices become every day for three hours plus games. This makes it hard to do school work, have a social life, or a job,” she said.
But these girls are true blue (and gold, of course).
“We try out for the cheerleading team because all 24 of us love the ETSU Bucs and cheerleading. We work hard and do our absolute best for the university and to represent our school the same way our school represents us,” Poirier said.
And, like any competitive team, they’re already taking a close look at what it will take to improve on this year’s fourth-place finish at nationals.
“We will be training harder so we can execute more difficult stunts and tumbling in our routine,” Tipton said.
“We also need to keep a healthy mindset, stay motivated but be able to take criticism from our coaches and what the judges have said this past routine and critique,” Poirier said.
They know it will take a lot of hard work, and they’re not shying away from it. In their eyes, it’s a small price to pay for the experience of a lifetime.
“Honestly, the little girl that was cheering in middle school never thought she would be competing in a collegiate Nationals Cheer Competition at Disney and placing fourth. This experience has given me the best teammates the world could offer, and definitely memories that I will cherish forever,” Gibson said.
“We are so much more than a team, we are a family.”