Sacred Heart University’s cheerleading team is getting plenty of attention after securing first place―its fourth consecutive win―at the Universal Cheerleaders Association (UCA) competition in Orlando, FL.
The 30 student-athletes took to the mat at Orlando’s Walt Disney World Resort Jan. 14, placing first in the UCA’s Open All-Girl Game Day category. The success earned them a warm SHU reception when they returned home, along with an invitation to visit the State Capitol for accolades from the General Assembly.
“I couldn’t stop crying; the tears were just rolling down my face after we won, and when we came back and all our supporters were there cheering us on, it was a great feeling,” said senior Nicole D’Angelo, 21.
Later in Hartford, Sen. Tony Hwang (R-Fairfield) led the team on a tour to meet Connecticut’s legislators, and then the student-athletes were seated in the House and Senate chambers as politicians praised their achievements. “It’s always heartening when people in powerful positions recognize us,” said head coach CJ Sereno.
The praise was icing on the cake for the team, which was thrilled with being successful once again. “Winning all four years is something I never thought would happen, and it has been a privilege. I’m really grateful for this experience,” said senior Gabriela Alzate, 22.
D’Angelo said while there was a lot of pressure to hold on to the title, the team perfected its skills during practices and maintained the confidence needed to shine. “We know what we’re doing; we practiced the routine all year, and we come off the mat each year knowing we did our very best,” she said.
Reflecting on the multiple wins, Sereno said the team had few expectations when it competed four years ago. Rather, the SHU athletes went to Orlando that year with the intention of demonstrating their skills, participating in a sport they love and having a good time. “We did not think we were going to win,” the coach said.
That first victory gave way to expectations, and each year thereafter the team has returned to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex with all eyes upon them. “The pressure increases year after year,” Sereno said, adding that other teams try to catch a glimpse of the SHU group during practices. “It makes for an intense environment,” she added.
Sereno said the team’s seasoned student-athletes understand the pressures of competition and know how to calm their nerves before a performance. They, in turn, help younger teammates control their anxiety prior to stressful competitions like the one in Orlando. “They’ve done this; they know what they’re doing, and they know how to stay focused on the routine,” she said.
Michelle Coakley, 18, a freshman, said she was new to the kind of high-pressure performing she experienced in Florida and didn’t know what to expect. She cheered in high school and, while she was elated to be cheering with the SHU team at such a prestigious event, a national competition can be unnerving. But thanks to rigorous training with her team, excitement replaced nervousness on competition day, and she competed like a pro.
The same can be said of all the team members, who performed with the same vigor and talent they demonstrate at any SHU sporting event. “They were cheering so loud. They were screaming at the top of their lungs,” their coach said. “It makes it more fun when they just let loose like that, and I think they forget about the pressure. They’re like, ‘Oh yeah, we’ve done this routine a million times—what’s one more?’”
The cheer team practices year-round, differentiating it from other sports teams that play for a specified season. And, as the team members practice for national competitions, they also show up to cheer for and support other SHU teams at their sports events.
Still glowing from the thrill of a fourth victory in Orlando, the team looks forward to cheering on fellow athletes at upcoming games and can’t wait to return to Florida in 2024 for a chance at UCA win number five.
Sacred Heart is home to the award-winning, NPR-affiliated radio station, WSHU, a Division I athletics program and an impressive performing arts program that includes choir, band, dance and theatre. www.sacredheart.edu