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Peak Performance: Cheerleaders Take Fourth at Nationals

Club Team Builds on Div. I Growth with Best Showing Yet at NCA Championships

The UML cheerleaders pose with their fourth-place trophy on the beach in Florida Photo by courtesy
The 2017-18 cheerleading team poses with their fourth-place NCA trophy on the beach in Florida.

By Ed Brennen

The River Hawks haven’t just stepped up their game between the lines since elevating to NCAA Division I athletic competition.

The UMass Lowell cheerleading club team is also reaching new heights, finishing fourth at the 2018 National Cheerleading Association (NCA) college championships this spring in Daytona Beach, Fla. 

It was the River Hawks’ best finish ever at the two-day competition, which draws scores of collegiate cheer and dance teams from across the country.

“I was speechless when I found out we were fourth. It was like no other experience,” says senior Kasheyla Womack of Lynn, one of 14 team members who represented the university at nationals. 

The River Hawks competed at the Intermediate Division I level against a field of 13 schools that included the University of Maine, DePaul University, American University and the College of the Holy Cross.

Last year, in the Day 1 qualifying round, the River Hawks finished last in their division and missed the Day 2 finals. This year, they finished fifth in the qualifying round, which easily advanced them to the final field of eight for the first time in school history.
The UML cheerleaders root on the women's basketball team at the Tsongas Center Photo by Bob Ellis
Cheerleaders on the "game team" perform at around 30 men's and women's basketball home games each winter.

“Going to the finals was a big step for the program,” says senior team captain Cassidy Gilbride of Dunstable. “It felt really good knowing we accomplished something to help build the team.”

Performing a two-and-a-half-minute routine of tumbling, jumping, dancing and stunting (the moves involve building pyramids and acrobatic tosses), the River Hawks scored 92.48 in the finals. Kennesaw State University took first with a 97.63, followed by Maine (95.73) and Saint Joseph’s University (94.97).

“They really wanted to come back and redeem themselves this year, especially the upperclassmen,” says first-year head coach Sarah Blier, who was an assistant on the 2016-17 squad. “It was so rewarding to see how happy they were to make it to Day 2 and bring home a trophy for the first time.”

Cheerleading became a club sport at the university in 2006 and is part of the Campus Recreation program. The club includes a competition team (which travels to nationals and other regional events) and a game team (which performs at around 30 men’s and women’s home basketball games each winter). Many of the competition team members are also on the game team.

Practices run at least twice a week, for two to three hours, during the academic year at the Campus Recreation Center. Team members also must dedicate time to fundraising; they sell 50-50 raffle tickets at home hockey games and run a youth cheerleading clinic in the spring to help cover travel expenses. 
The UML cheerleaders perform at the Team Impact gala Photo by courtesy
The UML cheerleaders pump up the crowd at the Team Impact gala in Boston.

Blier says the student-athletes’ commitment and consistency throughout the year translated to success on the national stage. “It’s such a long season,” she says, “but bringing home a trophy made everything worth it in the end.”

The fourth-place finish was especially sweet for the team’s two assistant coaches, alumni Samantha Cacciola ’16 and Emily Ahern ’16, who both cried tears of joy when the results were announced.

“It was the best moment of my coaching career,” says Ahern, who earned a degree in psychology from the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences and is now the cheerleading coach at Tyngsboro High School and Windham (N.H.) Middle School. “I grabbed the arm of one of the dads and started jumping up and down. I couldn’t feel my legs for two days.”

Ahern transferred to UML from Rutgers University, where she had cheered for two years. Cacciola noticed Ahern’s cheerleading backpack one day in class and recruited her to join the River Hawks team her senior year.

“It was the best decision I could have made,” says Ahern, who has been cheering since she was 4 years old. “I love being able to share my passion for a sport that has meant so much to me. It helps student-athletes build self-confidence and teaches them life lessons.”

For Cacciola, the cheerleading team was the main reason she chose to transfer to UML from Middlesex Community College. It turned out to be the highlight of her college experience.
The cheerleading team poses for a picture at the NCA competition Photo by courtesy
The River Hawks recorded their best finish in club history at the NCA national championships.

“This is where I made all my friends,” says Cacciola, a commuter student from Tewksbury who served as club secretary and then president her senior year. “It’s what kept me into school. I’d go to class and look forward to going to cheering afterward.”

Cacciola and Ahern agree that the university’s rise to Division I athletics has helped take the cheerleading team to the next level.

“More girls are coming out for the team each year, and we’re able to put more talent and skills on the mat,” says Cacciola, who majored in psychology and is now a graduate student at Lesley University studying special education. She also works as a preschool teaching assistant in Arlington and is the cheerleading coach at Shawsheen Tech High School.

“People are starting to realize what a phenomenal program we have,” adds Ahern, who notes that the university’s support for the program has been instrumental (the team recently bought new uniforms thanks to a donation from UMass President Marty Meehan).

Current team members are thankful for the foundation laid by the alumni – and for their ability to give back to others. In May, the squad was invited to participate at a gala event in Boston for Team Impact, a national nonprofit that connects children facing serious and chronic illnesses with college athletic teams. Gilbride says it’s “the most amazing thing the team has ever done.”  

Work for the 2018-19 cheerleading season, meanwhile, has already begun. The River Hawks had their first practice in late May and will hold four-hour practices once a week throughout the summer. 

Both Gilbride and Womack will be back on the team. Gilbride, who earned her bachelor’s degree in atmospheric science from the Kennedy College of Sciences in May, is pursuing her master’s degree. Womack is completing her bachelor’s degree in business administration (with concentrations in accounting and management) from the Manning School of Business.

They’re both looking forward to another trip to nationals next spring.

“Fourth was good,” Gilbride says, “but we want to take the national championship home.”

Other club sport highlights from the past year included:
  • The men’s rugby team won 12 of its last 15 games to finish with a 16-4 record. The River Hawks won the Cherry Blossom 7’s tournament in Washington, D.C. and the Bentley Round Robin.
  • At the 2018 National College Volleyball Federation national championships, the men’s volleyball team finished fifth out of 41 teams in Div. I-AAA. Senior Ben Aho was named to the all-tournament second team. 
  • The field hockey team finished ninth out of 24 teams at the National Field Hockey League national tournament in Virginia Beach, Va. The River Hawks were 2-1 at the tournament.
  • In badminton, the River Hawks were crowned the 2018 YONEX Eastern Collegiate Team Badminton Champions in Queens, N.Y.
  • The cricket team qualified for the 2018 American College Cricket National Championship in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where they went 1-2.
  • The golf team won the Northern New England Regional at Bass River Golf Course in South Yarmouth.