Floriani With Some Forgotten Athletes

Posted by jstevrtc on November 27th, 2009

Ray Floriani is an occasional contributor and the RTC correspondent for the MAAC and NEC conferences.  He covers college basketball in the greater New York City area.

NEW YORK CITY – They are visible on the baseline. They certainly are noticed during timeouts with their dance routines and gymnastics-based daredevil moves known in the field as “stunts.”  Cheerleaders are a part of the college basketball fabric.  But how many people realize the behind-the-scenes aspects of cheerleading ?

About fifteen minutes prior to the Coaches vs. Cancer final at Madison Square Garden, North Carolina and Syracuse players are going through pre-game warm-ups.  UNC cheer coach Curt Brossman is on the baseline taking a few minutes.  He had his squad stretch for about 30 minutes and gave them final instructions.  Cheerleading is anything but a haphazard venture.

Brossman cheered 5 years at North Carolina.  He is in his fourth year at UNC as cheer coach.  During high school Brossman played on the baseball and golf teams. He cheered on his high school co-ed squad during his senior year and essentially was hooked.  “At North Carolina a lot of the guys try out with no prior cheer experience,” he said.  “The women have a lot more experience in cheerleading when they come to UNC and try out.”  Among 30 or so cheer candidates each year, there are fewer men. They probably have played a sport in high school or they simply want to be part of the Carolina program.  The women have cheered from recreation, through middle school, high school and now are taking the next step.  The tryouts, especially emphasizing stunting and dance with the women, last a few days and Brossman notes with a smile there are candidates who are simply overmatched and just will not make the grade.  With the men, it is more of less seeing if they can handle their part of the stunt at the finish (usually) and have the necessary strength.

Hope this doesn't affect Ray's longtime friendship with Coach K.

Hope this doesn't jeapordize Ray's longtime friendship with Coach K.

Brossman has made a smooth transition from the baseline to coaching.  “I’ve been involved in and worked at a number of cheer camps the past few years,” he said.  “It hasn’t been a tough adjustment (to coaching).  I really like to teach the skills involved in cheerleading.”

If cheerleaders look very athletic it’s no accident.  “Three times a week — Monday, Wednesday and Friday — we have a three-hour practice as a squad.  On Tuesday and Thursday the squad has mandatory weight lifting on their own.”  Brossman notes all this fits within the time table of travel to games or cheering at a home contest.  In other words, a Wednesday night game at the Dean Dome means no squad practice in the afternoon.

Cheerleaders are athletes. At virtually every school they are true student-athletes with academic demands.  “We don’t require a specific GPA to maintain eligibility,” Brossman says. “All we demand is that our cheerleaders maintain ‘good academic standing.’”

Similar to many programs at this level, North Carolina has more than one squad.  There is a varsity which cheers men’s basketball home and tournament games and football.  A “JV” group cheers women’s basketball and home football contests.  Finally, there is the dance team, a separate entity but under the UNC cheer auspices.  “The new members of the squad,” Brossman said, “enter on the JV but move up to varsity at the end of the year.”

Halftime.  North Carolina leads by two.  The cheer squad takes a break by the baseline.  Sipping water and posing for an occasional picture with a fan(s). Even those decked out in Syracuse orange.  Andrea Blanford is a senior co-captain and four year veteran of the cheer squad.  She cheered three years in high school and also played on the volleyball team.  Not a surprise regarding the latter.  At a height of about 5’6 she is taller than the rest of the women on the squad.  She loves being part of the Carolina tradition but also echoes the practical side.  “It can be tough,” she says.  “You balance practice, school, games.  Sometimes after practice you can absolutely exhausted but there is school work to finish.”  The Charlotte native had never ventured to Madison Square Garden before this week and described cheering on the hallowed MSG hardwood as “unreal.”  As we spoke about the Garden she gazed in awe at the championship banners hanging in the rafters.  As a devout Knicks fan, I noted a wish for a few more.  But that’s another story.

Mark Bilkington, a senior co-captain from Belmont, North Carolina, has been cheering at UNC four years.  He is the prototype example for the men to which Brossman alluded.  “I never cheered in high school,” Bilkington said. “Saw the tryout notice and figured it would be something different.”  Now he’s hooked.  He discussed the demands, especially in travel.  One memorable day last April the squad’s regimen called for a 6 AM wake-up.  Between rallies, appearances, a game, etc, they weren’t finished until 2:30 am.  “A long day but definitely worth every minute,” he said.

Until this trip Bilkington said he had never been north of the Mason-Dixon line.  “I knew about the Garden, I knew about the legends,” he said.  But just being here is incredible.  I’m intrigued about the past of this place.”  He went on to say that during their stay the squad got to visit Central Park, Times Square, and Broadway, to name a few.  The schedule calls for another early morning as the squad heads to Boston College to cheer for the football team. Overall, Bilkington hopes to cherish his final year with the squad.  “I’ll be sad when it’s all over,” he said.  “These squad members are like family to me.”

Finally the subject came up.  What about Duke and that storied rivalry on Tobacco Road between two of college basketball’s aristocracy less than 10 miles apart?  Brossman laughs, knowing this question was coming.  It’s really hate but respect,” he said.  “Let’s just say I respect Duke as much as I hate them.”

“I…wait, I can’t say that word right,” Andrea laughed when posed the question.  Again her expression was on the lighter side, but the feelings run deep.  “Let’s just say I strongly dislike Duke.”  She adds.  Mark echoes the sentiment, discussing how intense the rivalry is.  “How deep the emotions run.  You are not neutral, it’s either/or.  Even if you live in another section of the country.”

On this night, the second half does not play in Carolina’s favor.   Syracuse pulls away for a convincing victory.  The squad takes the floor on every time out. Same enthusiastic expressions and smiles from the women.  Same precision and expertise in routines.  As representatives of their school and team they approach their job with excellence regardless of the score.  Even if the Tar Heels are on the short end.  And even if the opponent was Duke.

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