Ray Floriani of College Chalktalk is the RTC correspondent for the MAAC and NEC conferences, covers all levels of basketball in the New York City area, and is at Madison Square Garden for the Jimmy V Classic.
NEW YORK CITY – Think of the University of Connecticut and the images of excellence, outstanding coaching and regular post-season appearances come to mind. For the men, women and cheerleaders. The UConn Spirit program website proclaims the program purpose and mission statement with the headline “University Spirit, Pride, Tradition.”
The program is under the auspices of new coach Sarah Mickels. A 2006 graduate of the University of Tennessee, Sarah was on the dance team and has 20 years of experience in dance. In addition, she is an accomplished veteran in coaching, with experience at the youth, high school and collegiate levels. And, as she indicates with a smile, any possible UT-UConn matchup in women’s basketball would be quite interesting from an emotional allegiance standpoint.
Even the loss to Duke doesn't dampen their enthusiasm.
One of the major changes in the program was combining the cheer group. In the past there were two groups. One cheered the men’s team, the other cheered the women. Now the squad is one 24-person unit. “I think it’s great (the change),” said senior co-captain Heather Heimann. “I love it. It gives us a chance to work with everyone, meet new people and teach the younger cheerleaders in the program.” A native of New Rochelle, New York, Heather is a marketing major who cheered four years in high school. She has an extensive background in gymnastics which is vital to make it on the college level. You don’t simply go out on the floor during time-outs and automatically do back flips the length of three quarters of the court.
At UConn, besides the mandatory two-to-three-hour practices several days per week, cheerleaders have specific academic requirements. “We must maintain a 2.5 GPA,” Heather said. “We have grade sheets filled by our professors and submitted (to the coach).” In preparation for travel to New York for Wednesday’s Big East-SEC matchup with Kentucky, Samantha Strumbolo, another senior co-captain, echoed the academic emphasis noting, “I’m glad we have the late class because we won’t miss class before heading to New York.”
Overall, the squad change was for the better. Last year Heather cheered for the women but attended the men’s game as more of a fan. Now she has the opportunity to be on the floor and cheer both programs. Football is also part of the cheerleading experience. For Heather a major highlight was the recent Husky win at Notre dame in overtime. “Cheering in front of 80,000 fans at Notre Dame Stadium was great,” she said. “Winning in overtime was unbelievable.” It’s just a few weeks between the storied Notre Dame Stadium to “the world’s most famous arena,” at Madison Square Garden — an exciting agenda on the cheer schedule.
For their part, the UConn cheerleaders and the Husky provide their own excitement and keep the crowd involved. “One of the big changes this year allows us to go into the stands and get the fans really involved. It is a whole new tradition.”
In the UConn cheer program, a tradition that has not been altered is one of representing the school in a classy and entertaining manner. Excellence — the expectation, not just an objective. The same as it is for the programs for which they cheer.