Eastern Michigan University's cheer team are national champions for the first time in program history.
The EMU cheer team won the National Cheerleaders Association Intermediate Small Coed Division IA on April 9. They defeated Coastal Carolina University and the University of Central Florida with a final score of 91.5125.
The team’s road to the national championship was filled with hurdles, including COVID-19 testing protocols, sanitization breaks, and several shutdowns that led to fewer practices and less time together.
Mary Spilski, the team’s head coach, began coaching at EMU in 2014. She said this season was about more than cheerleading.
“It was more about the mental health of 24 athletes,” Spilski said. “It was about their academic challenges, financial struggles, and being socially isolated. I had to back off on standards that have been set because the circumstances of their lives had changed...I think practicing was a saving grace for a lot of them, it was [their] safe space.”
For Olivia Hewitt, a cheerleader and senior at EMU, this season was different than her previous ones. The team had to cancel their usual summer camps, and they were not able to meet in person until the fall semester started. However, the team’s connection never diminished.
“The pandemic brought us closer together and gave us an opportunity to bond over something teams had never bonded over,” Hewitt said. “Although being shut down was not ideal, I truly believe that we all remained focused on our goal, which was nationals. I think it turned out alright for us.”
Spilski and Hewitt said the most difficult part of this season was not performing in front of a crowd. Only seven of the team’s 24 members had performed at nationals because the previous year’s competition was canceled.
“Getting in front of the crowd for the first time just days before we took the stage was hard,” Spilski said. “We could prepare all we want, but nothing prepares you for that.”
The team reworked their previous season’s routine by adding new music and minor changes to the choreography. Within about 20 practices, the team incorporated their freshman members.
However, the routine was constantly changing, including right before two major performances. An injury the night before a prelimination round forced the team to spend hours changing the choreography, and it changed again when the cheerleader was cleared to participate. The team even adjusted their routine while walking to the stage at nationals.
“On the practice mat before finals, there were a few things not hitting, so as we walked off the mat to head to the stage, we had conversations and decided to pull those skills,” Spilski said. “Those changes made all the difference. It boosted the confidence heading into the final performance and helped our score increase two points from [prelimination].”
Despite the challenges of a COVID-marked season, the EMU cheer team won the program’s first championship title. Spilski said the team’s theme, “Build It Bigger”, reminded them to push through the unforeseen obstacles they faced.
“Our theme this year was ‘Build it Bigger,' as in a ship,” Spilski said. “Because all the teams are in the same storm, not the same boat, and it was up to us to build a bigger boat to get through the storm.”
Hewitt has been a cheerleader for 15 years, and she said that winning the national title was a dream come true.
“Ever since I was a little girl, it was my dream to be able to cheer as long as I could,” Hewitt said. “Being able to go out as a national champion is beyond a perfect ending for me.”