The stadium fills, the skydivers drop, anticipation turns to cheers as smoke spills from the Grizzly gate entrance to the field. This is it, the main event.
The 2011 Homecoming game represents more than a year of work for University of Montana sophomore Nicole Gioia and senior Lauren Hall. Last season, they were UM Cheer Team alternates, never touching the turf during a football game. But they put in the work, learning more than 10 pyramid stunts, basket tosses, partner stunting, more than 20 cheers and 12 dances, each named after an ex-member of the cheer team. Then they got to try out for the team again in July.
“I grew up cheering,” Gioia said, “so seven years has been put into making one team. When I made it, I felt like I had finally proved myself. I made my mom proud.”
Hall and Gioia were picked from more than 30 hopefuls.
* * *
When I met with them outside the Adams Center this week, Gioia and Hall led me across the stadium gym floor and out the back doors to Washington-Grizzly stadium. We climbed two flights of stairs into what felt like an attic. I wasn’t supposed to ask the cheerleaders about funding, and I understood why. I expected to see a dressing room with movie-star style mirrors and lights, makeup and flowers scattered around. Instead, we were in a classroom-sized space, floored with a layer of spongy foam and blue carpet, with one wall lined with mirrors.
“If the weather is nice we practice out on the field,” Hall said. She pointed to a wide metal beam that rose from the floor diagonally to the 25-foot-high ceiling. “It can be kind of sketchy to practice basket tosses in here.”
They sprawled out on the floor, looking every bit the girl-next-door type, light makeup, casual clothes. The Barbie transformation to field readiness is saved for game days.
During Homecoming week, the game-ready look has to be applied more than usual. When the skydivers hit the 50-yard-line today, the cheer team will have dolled-up for three events; Homecoming kick-off at the Southgate Mall, the Friday night pep rally and bonfire and the Saturday morning parade. But the game is curtain drop for the cheer team. Homecoming is not a normal football game. It's a packed house. Double the tailgaters, plus alumni, athletes and administrators with all eyes on the field.
“In Missoula, Griz football is the town pride,” Gioia said, “so football is the big event for cheer.”
I tell Hall and Gioia I have never been on the field. They lead me through more hallways, past computer labs and weight-training rooms, to the long, curving tunnel leading to the field. Before they step onto the field, they stretch to touch the top of the tunnel door.
“That’s a tradition for the football team,” Gioia says. “It’s good luck.”
* * *
We stepped into the sunlight of Washington-Grizzly field and I spun around a few times, taking it in.
“I love the field when it is calm like this,” Hall said, taking a deep breath. “On game days, it feels huge in here. Pictures make it look like a professional field.”
Gioia pointed to the empty section 127 on the east side of the stadium near the north endzone. “That's where our moms sit."
Gioia and Hall are both the first in their families to go to college and their moms frequently attend the games. “My mom is so proud,” Gioia said, “she gets excited for every game.”
And Homecoming is no exception. While some students and alumni brush Homecoming aside, the cheerleaders live it. Win or lose, rain or shine, the cheerleaders show up to every game (in skirts!) for the sport they love, and the team they love.
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Today their schedule looks something like this:
* 7 a.m. Rise and Shine: Because the cheerleaders don’t have a dressing room, they do their hair, makeup and suiting up separately. Some of the girls use makeup to outline the curves of their stomach muscles to make them more visible from the field.
Three girls, Gioia included, use fake eyelashes. Once the game starts, there's no time or space to freshen up or re-curl hair, so some of the girls spray hairspray on their faces to keep their makeup from sliding, Hall said. The female team captain, Jordan Hamel, decides how the girls do their hair and how much of their uniform they wear.
9:40 a.m Shaking Hands, Kissing Babies at the Parade: The cheerleaders are used to signing autographs, usually for young girls.
“People probably think we are like, ‘OMG of course I’ll sign your autograph!’ since that is the cheer stereotype,” said Hall, “but every time a kid asks me to sign something it makes me want to cry. For us, this is just cheer and we forget kids look up to us.”
At the parade, Gioia guesses they will probably sign five to 10 autographs each.
11 a.m. Pregame Ritual: While their fellow students are at Kegs and Eggs or tailgating, the cheer team has just a short time to warm up. Then they're off to sell raffle tickets, take pictures and mingle with fans.
1 p.m. Nerves Kick In: The moments before the football team rushes onto the field are the nervous ones, Gioia said.
“We are standing on the 30-yard line in between the marching band, watching the gate over our shoulders,” Gioia said. “I get scared I’ll get trampled if I don’t tumble fast enough, or that I will flip into one of my teammates.”
1:45 p.m. Their Favorite Section: By second quarter, Monte has stolen their pompoms about 10 times. Heat is beginning to radiate off the turf. By now they've probably done pushups on the goal post line, meaning the Griz have scored a touchdown. Then, it's time to cheer for Sections 119 to 121. Here in the student sections, the fans are on their feet most of the game.
“Drunk students will scream and clap for anything,” said Hall, “and that is fun for Cheerleaders.”
The male cheer captain Buck Claesson decides what stunts to call.
“A good basket toss may go 15 feet in the air,” said Hall. “That’s fun in the student section because students react. You get the feedback you were looking for. It’s addicting.”
4:30 p.m. After Party: “By the end of the game, we get turf toe,” Gioia said. “Our feet hurt from bouncing around on the field.” The male cheerleaders have been tossing 95 to 150 pounds of smiling girl into the air for more than three hours. It's time to unwind. The team is not allowed to wear cheerleading uniforms or gear downtown after the games. Regardless, they still get recognized. It’s a rare day when Gioia and Hall don’t get asked if they're cheerleaders.
“Usually someone is telling me, ‘I like that flip thing you do,’” Gioia said. “I get asked if I can teach people cheer stunts a lot.”
—Reported and Written by Billie Loewen
This post is part of a partnership between the Missoula Independent and the Fall 2011 Online News class at the University of Montana School of Journalism. Students will be filing several reports about Homecoming 2011.