‘Grit, growth and glory’: USF coed cheer’s journey to its third national title

USF joins Kentucky as the only two programs to win three straight national championships. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

USF’s coed cheer team held hands while sitting on the nine-panel mat on Jan. 14, anxiously waiting to hear who would win the Universal Cheerleaders Association (UCA) College Nationals in the Division 1A Large Coed category. 

When they were announced as the winners, happy tears and smiles were worn across the whole team as they held up their trophy for the third year in a row.

South Florida triumphed with their two minute and 30 second routine consisting of running and standing tumbling, partner and group stunts, pyramids, basket tosses, dance choreography and  crowd-led chants with signs and stunts. 

Third year Ansley Topchick said most people don’t realize how demanding the skills needed to compete in cheer are.

“We practice just as much as other sports, it is physically demanding,” Topchick said. 

“We’re doing so much stuff that is just tough on the body. We compete at a high level, which I know a lot of sports do. I think cheerleading is even more intense because other sports maybe get a season of ten games, we get one go at two minutes and 30 seconds. So we really just have to know that we are putting our best foot forward when the time comes.” 

Competitive cheer differs from other sports because its season is all year round. The squad starts their practices right after their tryouts in May and continues their performances throughout USF’s regular fall and spring season athletics. However, their most critical practice period is November-January when the nationals is held. 

During November, the Bulls are practicing every day on top of appearing in the last bit of football season. When December rolls around, they are on the mat every day, twice a day in addition to cheering on both men’s and women’s basketball teams. 

Coach Gillian Guadagnino said they practiced 56 hours in a seven day period when the competition date was getting closer. 

“There is a lot of pressure coming from last year,” Guadagnino said. “[But] we focus on pursuing a national championship, not defending a national championship. The amount of physical and mental demand that it takes to just dial in and be completely focused…the demand it takes just to dial in and remind them that only these 20 people on these nine mats matter.”

Of the 20 members on the cheer team, six of are freshmen. Long practices and leadership skills are vital to performing a solid routine onto the mat with a large group of first-years.

Guadagnino spoke highly of junior Erica Scarborough’s ability to lead and captivate the team with her natural born charisma.

“She’s a natural born leader,” Guadagnino said. “They listen to her, she rallies behind them [and] motivates them. She’s just an amazing person.”

Scarborough said her coach is her main inspiration as she is the backbone of their strong team. 

“She embodies the person I want to be both on and off the mat,” Scarborough said. “She just empowers confidence, energy and wants to be the best version of herself every day. I try to embody her as much as I can and it really helped my confidence and it helped me lead others to have that same confidence.” 

South Florida’s award-winning coach taught the mantra of “grit, growth and glory” to the team this season.

Their grit represented the hard practices, the growth in seeing improvement made them eager to attack their routine and then both of those allowed them to see the glory in the end.

And that glory was worth it, especially to Topchick.

“I am speechless. It’s been three days and I still feel like I am on cloud nine…I’m not really sure if it can be [put into] any words,” Topchick said. “This has been like a dream so it’s been pretty awesome.” 

After being asked how proud Guadagnino was of her team, she got emotional. 

“I’m not really sure [that] it can be any words,” Guadagnino said. “This has been like a dream.”

“They’ve worked tirelessly [and] support other programs. For them to be able to keep up academics, work 56 hours in one week and still support other teams, it’s just an awesome place to be.”