Sideline Champions: WKU Cheer’s journey to three national titles

Members+of+the+WKU+cheer+team+hype+up+the+crowd+during+the+matchup+with+UNT+in+E.A.+Diddle+Arena+on+Saturday%2C+March+4%2C+2023.+WKU+won+76-67.

Tucker Covey

Members of the WKU cheer team hype up the crowd during the matchup with UNT in E.A. Diddle Arena on Saturday, March 4, 2023. WKU won 76-67.

Molly St. Clair

As Andrea Lenoir prepared to perform at the UCA College Cheerleading National Championships in front of a crowd of hundreds, she counted how many mats there were to reach the center on both sides of the floor. A silly routine to most, but one she does before every performance to focus her mind.

Moments later, she and the WKU Cheer Team became national champions – three years in a row. Make no mistake, it wasn’t superstition that molded these athletes into victors, it was undying perseverance and commitment to their craft. 

This dedication that often goes unseen is what formed the WKU Cheer teams into one of the most successful programs on the Hill. Yet, they are the ones cheering on other athletic teams.

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The co-ed Cheer team won their first National Championship in 2022, and the all-girls Cheer team claimed two in 2021 and 2023.

Lenoir, better known as “Red” for her strawberry hair, competed on all three victorious WKU Cheer teams. 

Cheerleading is commonly a sport surrounded by stereotypes and the idea that the sport takes little-to-no effort. The WKU Cheer teams, along with recent media coverage, have begun to change that narrative.

“..They [WKU community] associate winning with the cheerleading program, which is not something that had been on campus before,” Red said. “So it’s kind of like a cultural shift to people kind of paying attention to us more, getting excited when we do performances. And I mean, that’s just what comes with winning with any sport.”

As spectators have their eyes on the field or court, hoping for a winning season, they don’t realize that champions are tucked away on the sidelines. 

WKU Cheer is on the sidelines of every basketball and football game, both home and away. Additionally, the teams participate in countless other school, alumni and charity events while maintaining their grades and other extracurriculars.

Several athletes also compete on the USA Cheer team. Jessa Wooten and Tyran Johnson both compete on the USA co-ed team. Carly Jones, Kate Segrest, Ashley Burdsall and Madison Sessions all compete for the USA All-girls team. WKU Cheer head coach, Alli Lumpkin, is also the assistant coach for USA Cheer.

When they are not court side or or competing, WKU cheerleaders can be seen practicing stunts and passes on South Lawn during a warm day.

While throwing each other in the air and torquing their bodies into maneuvers that are unthinkable to most, the WKU cheerleaders defy the stereotype that the sport simply takes poms poms and a pretty face.

During performances and practice, many athletes appear with multiple parts of their body wrapped due to injuries. Despite bruises, fractures and general pain from being thrown in the air and used as a human cushion, the WKU cheerleaders push through discomfort to get the job done. The athletes don’t have the option to sit out due to a minor injury; the show must go on.

“No one’s hurting less. We’re all in pain,” Kirsten Verble said. We’re all deteriorating, because national season is hard, but we always remind each other, we were chasing a feeling. We weren’t chasing a win.”

WKU cheer shares the Auxiliary gym in E.A. Diddle Arena with the basketball teams. The teams practice in the gym both before and after the basketball team’s practices. When students go home for winter break, WKU Cheer stays on campus for practice, conditioning and to attend games.

This devotion is what put WKU Cheer on the map as well as a coach determined to turn the program into something it has never been.

After Lumpkin joined the Hilltoppers in 2020, the teams quickly became repeat champions and familiar competitors to top schools in the nation.

During high school, Lumpkin was a frequent participant in WKU cheer clinics and worked with former WKU coaches as well. After high school, she went on to cheer at the University of Kentucky from 2007-2011 where she became a three time national champion.

Lumpkin’s experiences with some of the best programs in the country have equipped her with skills that have helped build the WKU cheer program. An expectation is set from the moment athletes step into tryouts.

“[B]y setting a standard at the beginning of try outs every year and just being clear to our athletes what this looks like,” Lumpkin said. “We run a business here at WKU cheer, it’s our job to produce a product, a winning product. And if you don’t do your job well, then you get fired or somebody else takes your job because they can do it better.”

While all-girls cheer and coed cheer may appear to be two different forms of the sport, the WKU athletes are trained in such a way that allows the female cheerleaders to be versatile in their skills. This equips them with the ability to change between the two teams if needed. 

This is just another technique that helped bring three national championships to Western Kentucky.

In the D1A division, WKU Cheer competes against larger and well known schools such as the University of Alabama, University of Kentucky and Ohio State University.

“We’re going up against the best of the best, just like football and basketball want to go against those power five schools,” Lumpkin said. “We do too, and it’s our job to be better than them. So it takes a lot of hard work to be able to compete at that level with those schools.”

Similar to any other athletic team, WKU cheer chases the adrenaline rush and feeling of accomplishment. Red said, the drive WKU Cheer has for a championship comes from knowing they have earned it through all their hard work.

“We wanted to perform well. And that’s what they expected, and you basically had to buy into the time commitment, buy into trusting each other and all these philosophies that they [the team] had absolute responsibility. You’re in charge of you and the choices that you make,” Red said.

In April, the six Hilltoppers who compete with Team USA clinched another championship title at the 2023 ICU World Championship, as team USA’s Co-ed and All Girl teams both took home gold.

While competition season may be over for the Hilltoppers, their pursuit for another title does not falter. While most students break for summer, WKU Cheer gears up for another football season.

Fans can also anticipate WKU Cheer’s return to the mat at the UCA College Cheerleading National Championships in January of 2024. 

While on the verge of four championships in four years, WKU Cheer maintains high expectations and strives to continue a winning culture.

 

Sports editor Molly St. Clair can be reached at [email protected].