They’ve got spirit
Dedicated but under-appreciated Chico State cheerleaders rev up Wildcat fans
The Acker Gym clock is counting down the minutes to the start of the second home basketball game of 2002, a hopeful battle against last year’s division champs Cal Poly Pomona. The practicing Pomona women dominate one basket, the Chico State players the other. Fans settle into their seats in the newly remodeled gym for the Saturday-night match-up.
Staked out between the old-style bleachers and the basketball court, a dozen young women, Chico State’s cheerleaders, are also gearing up for the game. Energy levels high, they daub last-minute glitter on their faces and divvy up concession stand snacks. “Usually, at half time, we share a hot dog,” grins Kristin Markos, the team’s co-captain, nodding toward a teammate.
The 12 young women start lining up, each with a pair of shimmering silvery pompons on the ready. Tonight, they’ve chosen black dance pants and sparkly white tank tops rather than the traditional cheerleading skirt and top. A list of routines sits on the floor in front of them like a rock band’s set list.
Their job: Bridge the energy from the court to the stands, drawing out spirit at a school that isn’t known for its fan turnout even as the teams perform respectably in their divisions.
The Jan. 5 crowd makes a pretty good showing, especially for a women’s game, and especially during the semester break.
But it’s those “especially"s that can damper the cheerleaders’ pep behind the scenes.
Sometimes, the squad practices for hours to perfect a less-than-two-minute routine, only to have its time cut short when the announcer introduces them a few seconds too late to complete the show. They practice in the dance room—when they can get reservations.
They put in at least 20 sweaty hours a week practicing and then performing at all the men’s and women’s home games—five hours a night on their feet. Almost all of them have other jobs, from waitressing to day care. They buy their own uniforms—which cost at least $800—and pitch in for cheerleading camp and other expenses. Cheerleading is their exercise, their social life, their time out.
Occasionally, members have to deflect stereotypes or compete with the in-your-face style of spirit pushed by relative newcomers like Wildcat Pride, a three-unit class launched more than a year ago with the mission of promoting Chico State sports and increasing attendance at games. The cheerleaders appreciate anyone who wants to boost Chico State, Markos said, but, “We want people to be cheering for the team, not cheering to win a T-shirt.”
It’s only in the last year that the cheerleaders have been able to earn college credits for their sport. “It is a sport,” said one team member. “It’s very athletic.” (The Athletics Department dropped cheerleading, along with its scant funding, in 1992.)
During the Jan. 5 game, in which the Chico State women ultimately fall to the Broncos, volunteer cheerleading coach Cheri Furniss watches proudly from the stands. Several parents are in the bleachers, too, all of them from out of town. “They’re so proud of their girls,” Furniss said. “Every game, someone’s family is here.”
As the clock wanes toward halftime, the women riffle through their duffle bags, assembling garters and tucking fake bills at thigh-level for a dance routine set to “Hey, Big Spender.” In a burst of inspiration, they kicked in the money for the garters, and someone made a run to Frederick’s of Hollywood.
Two nights earlier, at practice, the team has spent a good part of two hours running through the number, borrowing Furniss’ husband, choreographer Joe Garrow, for the role of the “big spender.”
The team chose this song, explains Markos, because school is out and they’re expecting more older folks who will appreciate a classic.
At practice, the women watch their moves in the wall-length mirror; Furniss reminds them—increasingly more sternly—to hold their poses even after the music stops.
During a water break, the young women crowd around Co-captain Elaine Maranise, who’s arrived late. She just got in from the Bay Area, where she had some tests relating to a blood disorder. Bone marrow was sucked out through her hip, so she’s cushioning her backside with a pillow.
It’s really hard for her to sit on the sidelines, particularly during the routine she choreographed herself, a sexy one set to the B-52s’ “Love Shack.”
“I want to be out there,” says Maranise, who calls out encouragement and direction from the dance room floor. Two nights later, she’s in Acker Gym with the rest of them, passing only on the high kicks.
Maranise says the team is comprised of women who cheered in high school or junior high and were surprised to learn there was a squad at Chico State. Tryouts are held each spring. This year is the last for several members of the team, including Maranise and Markos.
Accordingly, they’re going to Vegas, baby. The USA Collegiate Cheer and Dance Nationals will be held there Feb. 8-11. The women will have to miss a home game to go, so it was a tough call. They’ve been putting in six hours of practice each weekend since September just for this competition, where they’ll be going up against top-ranked, fully funded squads from other schools.
It should help that this year’s team is a 12-pack of perfectionists.
“One of the things that I encourage the girls to use as motivation is personal pride—knowing that you’ve gone out there and done your very best," Furniss said. "Anything you do, in order to do it well, you have to have 100 percent of your heart in it. And that’s where they are."