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Dedication, hard work at the heart of USF coed cheer’s dynasty

USF coed cheer successfully defended its national championship at the 2022 UCA and UDA College Cheerleading and Dance Team National Championship. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

The Corral can feel at times like a musty hidden closet within the sparkling Yuengling Center, yet it’s under the ancient yellow lighting in this gym-within-a-gym where a USF dynasty is being forged.

While the glory of back-to-back national championships is rightfully celebrated, the inglorious hours of physical work put in anywhere with a floor and two cheerleaders ready to stunt deserves to be recognized as well.

Unlike many sports, there is no clear offseason in cheerleading. The team transitions from tryouts in May, prepping for football season in the fall, competition season in the winter and back to tryouts the next spring.

“In the summer, we [practice] two times a week,” coach Gillian Guadagnino said. “Then once the fall semester starts, we’ll go up to three days a week for three hours each, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday. Once November hits we’ll add in a fourth day on Sundays to start working on choreography.

“Once December hits and as soon as finals are over, we actually go every single day from like 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. getting ready for our national championship.”

Even though the holiday season is shortened, it is a sacrifice team members are willing to make in order to reach their collective goals, according to senior Nicole Carignan.

“We only have five days for Christmas break to go see family,” she said. “Two of those days are traveling days. So it’s really three days, and the families get upset. My mom always is like, ‘What are you doing? Come home.’ And I’m just like, ‘No, next year maybe.’”

The common trope of cheerleading not being a sport or not an intensive one is starting to fade from public opinion, yet plenty of people outside the cheer bubble are still surprised to learn the true extent of the demand, according to senior Uriel Sanchez.

“It’s basically a full-time job,” he said. “When we tell people that, they’re genuinely amazed, because they’re like, ‘Wow, you practice for about six, seven hours a day?’ And we’re like, ‘Yeah, that’s a full commitment.’”

If the hours the cheerleaders put into team practice amounts to a typical work week, the extra practice they commit themselves to exceeds it, according to Carignan.

“Even when we practice, say 4:30-7:30, everyone comes in an hour early, and then everyone wants to keep stunting after that,” she said. “On days off, we stunt outside or we come in the Corral. We just stunt whenever and way more than we actually practice.”

When Guadagnino arrives to lead practice, everyone has already worked up a sweat. It’s a sight she’s become used to since arriving at USF in 2016, and this current crop of cheerleaders exemplifies that extra drive more than any group before it.

“They were always wanting to do more. They always wanted to get in an extra rep,” she said. “We practice a lot, yet they never shied away from practicing more. 

“If they had another rep in them, they would do it and they wanted to do it. They wanted to practice how they were going to perform.”

The squad’s hard work has paid dividends in the form of back-to-back Universal Cheer Association national championships. 

USF coed cheer is the second program in the sport’s history to repeat as national champions, winning its first in 2021 and doing it again on Jan. 16.

Even with the success, the team refuses to let off the gas, according to Guadagnino.

“We actually went into this year pursuing a national championship, not defending one,” she said. “So we kind of flipped the script, because there’s a lot of pressure that goes with defending a national championship.”

Sanchez was wary of the possible downfalls coming off the championship high into a new competition season, making sure the motivation remained.

“I think the biggest thing was definitely trying to keep that mentality of ‘Yes, we won before, but that time isn’t now,’” he said. “Last year isn’t this year, so we have to keep driving to keep being better because we can’t get complacent.”

The next step for coed cheer is replacing a record 11 seniors who are leaving this semester. Tryouts in May are more important than any in recent memory, according to Guadagnino. 

Once the chosen few bed in, however, the objective will not change.

“The new team that we’re going to have in May are not national champions. It was the team before them that were national champions,” she said. 

“That is how we’re going to continue to coach the kids so that they maintain their humility and their hunger to keep going in the right direction.”