Every year in late spring, Gonzaga students have the opportunity to showcase their skills and talents at the annual cheer team tryouts.
Under normal circumstances, the two-day tryouts are held in late April. In light of the current pandemic, the cheer team along with their head coach, Michelle Wilson, had to sit down and figure out how to hold tryouts under these challenging parameters.
Hannah Merrill, a senior team captain, broke down what a “normal” tryout weekend would look like.
“The tryout process involves a timed mile run, learning material (the university fight song, a dance and three cheers), an interview and extensive time spent on tumbling and partner stunting,” Merrill said in an email.
One of the most important aspects of not only the tryouts, but of being on the team as well, is the ability to work well with a partner. During tryouts, participants would have a few hours to work with the current male students on the team and choreograph a stunt sequence which they would perform during the last day of the tryouts and be judged upon.
It was a difficult process to try to make team tryouts, which are such a physically active event, and move them into the virtual space.
Merrill said the biggest obstacle they had to tackle was how to judge participants on their partnering and stunting ability.
“Our virtual tryout will be a very different format,” Merrill said. “Given the social distancing rules, we cannot ask those trying out to meet up and partner stunt, (which is the biggest part of what we do). So we are having applicants submit previously filmed videos whether that be from past cheer practices, games, competitions, etc.”
This was a difficult choice the team had to make, as observing how prospective team members work and partner with each other is essential for building the team roster. Nevertheless, Merrill is confident that they will still be able to create a strong and well-rounded team for next year.
“I am optimistic that the set-up we have created for our virtual tryouts will allow us to sufficiently gauge the skill level and personality of those trying out and we will still be able to find those that are a good fit for our program,” Merrill said.
This year was Merrill’s fourth year as a part of the cheer team, an experience she said that has had a lasting impact on her time here at GU.
During the off season the team commits to practices three days a week. During basketball season this jumps to upwards of 20 hours a week, broken down into practices, games and team workouts.
“Cheer was a big commitment and something I dedicated countless hours, evening, and weekends to, but I wouldn’t have done anything differently,” Merrill said. “The experiences I had in The Kennel, traveling for March Madness and bonding with the team are some of my favorite memories of college.”
Wilson is in her seventh year as team coach and brings with her decades of cheer experience. Prior to joining GU in 2014, she coached Eastern Washington University’s cheer team for eight years, after having graduated from and cheered for Eastern.
Wilson stressed the importance of tryouts each year, as they allow her to assess a prospective athlete on a physical scale and their ability to interact with both current and potential teammates. Both Wilson and Merrill said the time set aside during tryouts for students to practice partnering and stunting is crucial.
“Unlike any other team we literally hold each other’s lives in our hands, trusting each other is vitally important,” Wilson said in an email. “During tryouts I look for athletes that can bond together to create a family unit.”
During the second phase of tryouts, Wilson said she analyzes how well the athletes listen to her corrections and feedback, and how quickly they apply them. Without the ability to provide “hands on” coaching, Wilson has asked all students trying out to submit videos of themselves showcasing their stunting and tumbling skills.
Just as important to a student’s athletic abilities is their skill in “firing up” a crowd. The energy in The Kennel is an integral part of the team’s job, and a cheerleader must be able to mirror it while making sure it doesn’t get out of hand.
“A cheerleader needs to bring the energy will draw the crowds’ attention,” Wilson said. “I am looking for someone who has that something extra that makes you want to watch them.”
Students interested in trying out are not required to have any background in cheer, dance or gymnastics, although it is highly recommended. The men often don’t have any prior experience, and are usually previous high school athletes looking for new ways to stay in shape and challenge themselves physically and mentally.
Wilson is looking to build a team of ten women and 12 men for the 2020-2021 season. Students who were on the team roster this year are not guaranteed a spot for next year.