Weber State’s spirit team aims to conquer the ‘Cheer’ world, again

Wildcats are preparing to win fifth straight title at Daytona, where the teams in the Netflix series ‘Cheer’ compete.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Weber State University Spirit Squad members train for competition, March 16, 2022. The Weber State University Spirit Squad is in training for the National Cheerleading Championship title in Daytona Beach, April 6-10, 2022.

The stage — a purple-and-black padded mat on a hard gym floor — is set.

About 40 students, roughly split evenly male and female, in athletic wear in various combinations of purple, black and gray, are dripping with sweat. Teammates show support on the sidelines.

An enthusiastic, booming voice announces them: “And now, taking the floor, from Ogden, Utah: Weber State University.” Coach Summer Willis calls for music, and it begins.

For the next two minutes and 15 seconds — a total of 416 beats — these students channel a year’s worth of practice into one perfected performance, an adrenaline-driven display of athleticism, bravery and nerve.

The students execute an expertly choreographed combination of spiraling stunts, awe-inspiring pyramids, high-stakes tumbling, basket tosses and jumps — all pulled together with a visual dance element.

Just when you think it can’t possibly get better, it does.

This is Weber State’s Spirit Squad, preparing for the National Cheerleading Association’s Collegiate National Championship — set for Daytona Beach, Florida, April 6-10. Weber State won the Grand Gold National Championship last year, for earning the best score among all 100 teams at all levels. This year, they’re trying for their fifth straight title in the top college division.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Carly Gable, center, and fellow members of the Weber State University Spirit Squad train for competition, March 16, 2022.

Why Weber State is a ‘powerhouse’

The millions who watched Netflix’s documentary series “Cheer” know Daytona is a big deal. It’s the only major college cheerleading competition in the country, attracting teams from across the United States.

Navarro College and Trinity Valley Community College, the Texas schools profiled in “Cheer,” compete in Daytona at the junior-college level. Weber State is in the Advanced Large Coed (Division I) category — a level determined by the college’s football team’s status.

And the university has a strong reputation in the cheer world.

It’s “one of the best, if not the best, programs in the country,” said Cameron Canada, a freshman who moved from California to Utah when he was 17 to join the team. “It’s something that I don’t think I can find anywhere else.”

Athletes have come to Ogden from as far away as Australia to join the team. Some are transfer students from the schools seen on “Cheer” — such as Caylee Odle, who competed for Trinity Valley and was featured on the series. (Another athlete who’s prominent in the series, Gabi Butler from Navarro College, had transferred to Weber State, but left the team earlier this year.)

Hunter Fangmann transferred to Weber from the University of Kentucky, and found the program much friendlier.

“The biggest difference, when you fall here, it’s not ‘OK, get off the floor, someone else is ready to fill your spot,’” Fangmann said. “It’s ‘Hey, you can get back up, you’ve got this, you’ve got one more shot, we’re rooting for you and we want to see you succeed.’”

Weber State is a “powerhouse” in college cheerleading right now, said Matthew Torres, who came to Weber State after cheering at Texas Tech University and Trinity Valley.

Ogden’s seclusion from cheerleading havens in the South — particularly Texas, considered the cheer capital of the world — helps Weber’s team, Torres said.

“Rather than worrying about either competitors or other teams that are in your bracket, we just really like to worry about ourselves, and that’s something that I never did at the other colleges,” said Torres, a four-time national champion and three-time grand champion.

Nolan Whitlock, a graduate student in his last year with Weber’s team, used to cheer for Utah State University, where the emphasis was on cheering the other sports teams on game day. At Weber, he said, “you’re not just a part of the fan experience. You’re creating your own experience, too.”

The team is also breaking the stereotype, Wilcock said, “that all cheerleaders in Utah are pretty blonde girls.” He and the male team members are “here to show that we’re athletes, too.”

Male cheer team members have a big role, not only showing their own tumbling skills but also lifting their female teammates into their stunts.

Ed Moroney, a graduate student who competed all five years of his eligibility with Weber, grew up wrestling and playing football — but he said cheerleading is the hardest thing he’s ever done.

“Male athletes that you see on cheerleading teams are some of the most athletic people I’ve ever met in my life,” Moroney said.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Weber State University Spirit Squad is trying for their fifth straight title in the top college division.

Every part matters

Because of the size of Weber State’s program, and because of eligibility rules because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Wildcats are sending two teams to Daytona this month. The second team will compete in the Advanced Small Coed category.

Each team has 20 members performing at one time — the phrase they use is “on mat” — so there will be more chances for everyone to reach Daytona’s main stage, the coveted Bandshell.

Coach Willis, who has been at Weber State for 23 years, said the competition is scored based on what elements are performed and how well. Creating a routine is a balancing act, literally and figuratively, where every individual performer has a crucial role — and, like a jigsaw puzzle, it’s not complete if a piece is missing.

Willis said the process starts with skill development, which sets the foundation for all cheerleading. After the athletes secure their basic skills, they move to stunts and tumbling, choreography and forming human pyramids. (Moroney, who worked as an assistant coach at Trinity Valley, helps Willis with some of this.) Finally, they train with music, to add to their 8-count routines.

One disadvantage Weber State has in practice, compared to Southern schools, is winter weather. Southern teams can practice outside year-round, where Weber may get one or two outdoor practices during snowy weather. Instead, the Weber athletes prepare by walking around the track in the student facility, to simulate the long walk at Daytona from the practice area to the stage.

The biggest challenge of pulling together two routines this year, instead of just one, comes from the adjustments the team makes when an athlete is injured, Willis said. Injuries to ankles and shoulders are the most common, as are concussions, she said — and this year’s team has seen its share of those.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Perfect routines from Weber State University Spirit Squad members earn the squad a wildcat sticker on the team's megaphone, March 16, 2022. The Weber State University Spirit Squad is in training for the National Cheerleading Championship title in Daytona Beach, April 6-10, 2022.

To counter injuries, Willis said, the team works to make its athletes more versatile in their skills.

Senior Sophie Hansen broke her ankle last season, and is excited to be back for her final year. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” Hansen joked, referencing Friedrich Nietzsche — or perhaps Kelly Clarkson.

At a recent practice, with less than a month before Daytona, the team aimed to practice a “full-out” — the entire routine, start to finish — two or three times. The goal is to “hit zero,” or perform the routine with zero deductions from the final score for falls, dropped stunts and other mistakes.

If the team does “hit zero,” they get to add a sticker to the giant white Weber State megaphone that sits next to the speaker. On this day’s practice, three stickers were added.

Next to the megaphone is a small purple box. Inside are legacy letters from past cheerleaders, which the current squad members pick up and read during practice for inspiration and guidance.

As practice wrapped up, the two teams took turns perching around a spare desktop screen, connected to Willis’ iPhone, watching their performances. Where they’re wobbly, the individual stunt groups move to the side and go over what’s wrong and how to fix it. Willis tells them to keep positive endings in their heads.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Weber State University Spirit Squad director Summer Willis has been at Weber State for 23 years.

A deep history

Willis arrived at Weber State in 1998, when the cheer program wasn’t competitive at all. She spent the first five years splitting her time between coaching and working as an assistant in the Weber athletic department’s marketing office — but realized coaching was where her heart was.

She built the program from the ground up, and secured the team’s first appearance at NCA in 2008. The Wildcats won their first championship in 2009.

Willis has a background in cheer at Utah State, and her mother was a cheerleader at Weber. Her grandfather, Wallace Morris, is a key figure in Weber State athletic history. He was a starting left tackle for Weber State in the 1920s — and in 1925, led the team to the Western State Junior College Championship. Morris was inducted into the Weber State Hall of Fame. Morris’ nickname was “Wildcat,” which became and remains the school’s mascot.

The reason the program has lasted so long, Willis said, is because of the people who come into it.

Each team member has to find “their why” to be a cheerleader, she said, adding that part of her job is helping them find it. Willis said her “why” is her little sister, who had bone cancer and aspired to be a cheerleader but couldn’t.

Willis said she tells them to “stay true to who they are,” to celebrate after a big win but maintain high standards and, most of all, stay humble.

Willis said she wants her students to know that it’s not always about winning. In fact, her favorite “win” didn’t lead to a trophy. The Weber program ran into some trouble a few years back, and weren’t allowed to compete at Daytona. When they came back in 2014, they took a second-place finish — proof, Willis said, that the team was here to stay.

Today, the team marks that low point for the program by wearing wristbands with four letters — LSWT — that stand for a rallying cry only team members know. New members get white wristbands without the letters, and earn purple bands that have the letters embroidered on them.

Team captain Elsa Hassett said that an athlete earns the purple band when their supervising teammate “feels like they have shown how ‘LSWT’ affects them, and what it means to them. You can get your band flipped from working really hard or being super positive or being a good teammate, stuff like that.”

The athletes interviewed for this article agreed that Willis is the reason Weber’s cheer team is a success. They described her as a saint, an angel, a second mom, a big sister and a best friend all in one.

Gauge Stricklin, a transfer from Iowa Central Community College, said Willis is the glue that holds them all together. During practice, when a cheerleader gets the wind knocked out of her, Willis immediately follows her off the mat to make sure she’s alright.

Anuhea Keene, who transferred from the University of Kentucky and has been at Weber for three years, Willis’ commitment to team bonding activities sets the program apart. For example, the team has walked around the parking lot at Walmart, leaving happy notes on people’s windshields.

“It’s about becoming a better person, a better human being,” Keene said.

Keene’s favorite bonding activity is the first team dinner of the year, when Willis invites all the athletes to her home.

“Everybody will decorate a plate and she’ll put them in the oven, save them — and then every time we come over for team dinners, we each have our own plates,” Keene said. Each year, the athletes will make a new plate, and Willis has a cabinet full of them, from all her years as a coach.

Willis started the tradition, she said, to let everyone know they always had a seat at the table.

“It’s never perfect. It’s them working together to make it look as perfect as possible and pulling together as a team,” Willis said, describing each year’s team.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Katherine Abela is lifted into the air by Gauge Stricklin next to spotter Taylor Demler, left.

TV fame, social media and other life lessons

Butler’s departure in January — for various personal reasons and also so she could join the “Cheer” live tour — was hard for the team, the coach said, because she never wants to lose anyone. But it happened just as the team was at the beginning of its planning for Daytona.

Hassett and Hansen said the departure brought the Weber team together even closer than they already were.

“We preach family here like nothing else,” Hansen said. “This team is your family through and through.”

Willis is a fan of the “Cheer” docuseries, saying it’s putting the sport of cheerleading on the map — and showing it’s a real sport, requiring talent and stamina, and isn’t just a sideline spectacle.

Another sign of progress for the sport of cheer: The International Olympic Committee last year gave full recognition to the sport’s global governing body, the International Cheer Union — paving the way to put cheer in the Olympics as soon as the 2028 games in Los Angeles. Willis said she hopes the Olympic recognition will help the sport continue to gain popularity, garner more funding, and be recognized for its authenticity.

The Netflix show also put its athletes under a magnifying glass, Willis said. When that happens, she said, “you’re going to find issues, because we’re all human and they’re college-age kids and that’s what they’re doing.”

The series also highlighted the role of social media in the cheer community — particularly the idea of creating cheer “influencers.” (Some members of Weber State’s team have large numbers of followers on their social-media platforms, but none are at influencer-level numbers.)

Social media can be useful in recruiting and sharing cheer content. But, Willis warned, “you need to be a little bit careful with fame taking away from the nature of what you’re doing.”

Isaiah Earley — who cheered at Navarro College in the 2016-17 season, when the reigning junior-college champs lost, just as Weber State was starting their dynasty — said there’s a stark difference between Weber and Novarro. In tiny Corsicana, Texas, where Navarro is, cheerleading is a 24/7 activity, where the Weber State team practices three times a week, for 3½ hours at a time.

Participating in cheer at Weber State, he said, is “more than cheerleading, it’s about life-learning lessons.”

Earley credited Willis for leaving with the athletes the responsibility to make the right decisions off the mat, and to police themselves. “That’s why I feel like we’re all so successful because it’s the integrity that we all have to hold for ourselves,” he said.

Willis said the key to Weber State’s success in cheer is to help the students become well-rounded adults, and instill certain values. “This kind of sounds simple, but making those good choices … being a good person … kindness, lifting each other up,” she said.

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(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Weber State University Spirit Squad members train for competition at the Swenson Gymnasium, March 16, 2022. The Weber State University Spirit Squad is in training for the National Cheerleading Championship title in Daytona Beach, April 6-10, 2022.