Journey to Nationals: How an underdog club team made it to Daytona

CAITIE IHRIG/THE ITHACAN
The Ithaca College club cheerleading team poses with Ithaca College President Shirley M. Collado at the women's basketball game Feb. 10.

The Ithaca College cheerleading team stands on a parched strip of grass outside the Ocean Center arena in Daytona Beach, the harsh Florida sun warming exposed skin that hasn’t seen sunlight in weeks.

The team stands in their four stunt groups, rehearsing the first stunt sequence in their competition routine. This weekend marks the National Cheerleaders Association collegiate cheer championship. It’s the pinnacle of college cheerleading, the tense climax to eight months of constant preparation. For every team, including this one, the ultimate goal is a flawless routine — no falls, not even a wobble.

Coach Alicia Trahan, a petite woman who speaks with a slight Texas twang in her voice, stands in front of the team, watching. She presses play on the speaker on the ground, and the energetic beats in the team’s music engulf the space around them.

The four flyers stand facing away from their groups, silently counting along to the music in their heads. On three, they shrug and whip their bodies backward, their hands meeting grass to form a lowercase “n.” Their bases and back spots catch their feet on the other side and immediately flip them back over so their feet are now perched in their hands, the flyers’ arms quivering to steady themselves on their bases’ shoulders.

With a dip of the legs, the flyers are lifted into the air and then immediately switch from standing on two feet to one, squeezing every muscle in their body in an attempt not to fall.

The Ithaca College club cheerleading team practices before the championship in Daytona. The Bombers traveled to Florida to compete against teams from all across the country. CAITIE IHRIG/THE ITHACAN

But for Rochelle MacNeil, it doesn’t work, and her body tips to the side, sending her straight down. She doesn’t hit the ground though; her group, whose eyes have been trained on her the whole time, catches her arms and legs before she even has a chance to collide with the dirt.

Alicia pauses the music and lets out a sigh.

“You want to go home on an almost-good one?” she asks the team as more of a rhetorical question.

She knows how tired they are — they’ve been traveling all day and barely had any time to rest before jumping into practice under the searing sun. But if they can hit this stunt now, in spite of the exhaustion and the sweat and the heat, they can hit it tomorrow. They just have to push through.

A chorus of no’s erupt from the team, fully aware that they compete in 18 hours. If they want to make it past the prelims tomorrow, if they want to compete at the Bandshell, every group has to hit this stunt. Every flyer has to stay in the air. Almost good isn’t good enough.

Nine Months

It was the middle of summer, and with preseason rapidly approaching, the cheer team realized they had a problem: they had no coach. After their coach abruptly left the program during the Fall 2016 semester, their captain took over along with an assistant coach. But then they found out that the assistant coach technically couldn’t continue to lead the team anymore, according to an Ithaca College policy saying their coach must be at least 21. He was only 18.

They needed to find a new coach, fast.

____

Alicia never thought she would find herself in a small city in upstate New York. She had never even lived farther than three hours away from her hometown in Texas before. But postgrad adult life means big changes, which sometimes means moving to Ithaca, New York, just two weeks after getting married because your husband, Brody Trahan, was recently hired as the college’s football team’s newest coach.

During Brody’s interview process, the prospect of Alicia coaching existed more as a what-if than a serious idea. Sure, Alicia had cheered since she was 8 years old and had dedicated three years to the Baylor University coed team, but she figured she would put her cheerleading career to rest after graduating. She never even considered coaching. She needed to focus on adult life now — finding a job, building a life with Brody.

Still, the inkling of that possibility remained in the back of her head, only becoming more prominent once Brody was hired and the couple moved to Ithaca. Deciding to pursue some of the what-ifs in her head, Alicia reached out to the team.

After a constant back-and-forth through email, Alicia talked to Danielle Leiffer in a FaceTime call that lasted for two hours.

Alicia learned that the cheer team was a club sports team at the college, meaning they were reliant on themselves and the club sports team fund to finance, well, just about everything: their practice clothes, shoes, pom-poms, hair bows, registration to competition and any necessary travel. Even getting to Florida for NCAs remained up in the air until the team secured the $35,000 in funding just to get there.

Alicia was surprised when she heard this — it’s a far cry from her days at Baylor, where cheer was a varsity sport, everything was paid for and all she needed to worry about was just being a cheerleader.

Before the start of the team’s preseason in mid-August, Danielle invited Alicia to her apartment to meet her and the executive board for the first time.

They offer her the position of head coach. “You’re the one,” Danielle tells her. “You’re it.”

16 Days

It’s the middle of practice on a Tuesday night, and Rochelle’s getting frustrated.

Elevated in the air, right foot gripped in Alicia Armstrong and Camryn Heister’s overlapping hands, the top half of Rochelle’s body leans to the side, an unsteady Jenga tower slowly losing its center of gravity. Eyes unwavering, she bites her lip in her Herculean effort not to fall.

Squeeze everything in your body. Don’t breathe. If you breathe, you’ll move. You’ll fall.

On the fifth beat, Alicia and Camryn drop their arms to their shoulders, and the change in height causes Rochelle to plunge into their arms. She lets out a huff and tightens her high brown ponytail in exasperation. But she knows she can’t give up — she has to keep going.

A year ago, Rochelle never even dreamed of being a flyer. During her 11 years as an all-star cheerleader, she had been a base, throwing cheerleaders into the air in the same ways she was being tossed around now. That all changed during preseason.

It’s been a tough seven months since then, getting the hang of flying, learning the skills of college-level teams, overcoming the fear of the open air. Seven months ago, she used to cry, a mixture of fear and frustration, before learning certain skills.

She doesn’t cry anymore, but sometimes the frustration returns when a stunt doesn’t go how she wants it to. And she wants to hit the whole sequence. Not only for herself, but for her stunt group and the rest of the team. They deserve that much.

Standing on Camryn’s and Alicia’s hands at shoulder level, Rochelle tightens her knees and muscles once more, physically and mentally resisting the urge to come down and let gravity win. This time, Rochelle remains in the air in time for Alicia, Camryn, and Lauren Rommens to thrust her upward.

After finally hitting this sequence, Rochelle thinks about the twisting dismount that finishes the stunt. She takes a big breath in preparation. She doesn’t like twisting, like, at any stage in life.

Freshman Taylor Foster and senior Danielle Leiffer wait to catch sophomore Emma Schaefer during practice. CELISA CALACAL/THE ITHACAN

“You’re gonna twist, and it’s going to be beautiful,” Alicia says with peppy encouragement.

Rochelle nods. She’s right. She can do this.

At the end of the sequence, Rochelle waits for that faint dip that precedes the toss.

She doesn’t twist.

On the ground, Rochelle pauses to watch Emma Schaefer as she practices the same sequence beside her, staring as Emma effortlessly whiplashes her body around in the split second she floats in the air before landing in her group’s arms.

I want to do that, Rochelle tells herself.

One more time in the air. Don’t sink, don’t bend your knee, don’t breathe, keep squeezing. Don’t be that girl.

Twist.

Popped from Alicia and Camryn’s hands, Rochelle whips her head around before the rest of her body follows, a tightly wound coil falling out of the sky.

____

“Who are we?” Jillian Hodsdon yells, signaling to Alicia that they’re ready to run the routine.

“IC!” the team responds in unison, and they take their positions, their heads down and their hands at their waists.

Alicia plays the music and watches the team move through the routine, her face steely-eyed and expressionless.

At one point, Lauren begins to feel a threatening numbness in her arm. Midway through, she can’t even raise it anymore, and it hangs limply by her side as she completes the rest of the routine.

With practice over, Lauren immediately sprints out of the gym, only to return minutes later with a plastic bag filled with ice wrapped around her shoulder.

Alicia catches this, and an inkling of nervousness begins to set in her gut. On the one hand, she reasons, Lauren could just feel sore from tonight’s practice and just needs some ice to soothe any initial pain. But on the other hand, she could be seriously injured, making it likely that she won’t be able to compete on Saturday at Albany.

Alicia soon learns the extent of the injury: Lauren has a concussion, a result of a sharp elbow to the face. Alicia decides to put her on rest — she would rather have Lauren at her best for Daytona rather than stress her out for a competition that has no bearing on the team’s making it to the NCAs. Still, the team is one back spot short for their routine. She needs to find a replacement.

____

Danielle sits at the kitchen table later that night with her roommate, Alex Sprague, her forehead creased with worry.

“I don’t think Lauren’s going to be able to come to practice,” she tells Alex, her voice jumping an octave. “I don’t think she’s going to be able to compete.”

“Soooo what you’re saying is … you need a back spot,” Alex replies jokingly, referencing herself and her past eight years of cheer experience. She and Danielle laugh at the suggestion.

“I don’t even know how we’re going to get in the cars to get to Albany without Lauren’s car,” Danielle voices another concern.

“Soooo what you’re saying is …,” Alex starts again. “You need a back spot with a car.”

The pair laughs again, continuing to joke about the prospect of Alex coming back on the team after four years as an IC cheerleader. It sounds silly to them. But as Danielle weighs the team’s options, she realizes that wait, this could actually work. Alex is being serious.

In a FaceTime call between Alicia and the e-board, they decide that Alex will step in for the next few practices until Albany. They wish they weren’t in this position of having to find a last-minute temporary fill-in for Lauren, but Alicia reminds herself that cheerleaders get hurt all the time and have to be switched out. It’s all part of the game.

15 Days

Alex walks into the gymnastics room the next night, wearing her old practice clothes and her battered off-white cheer shoes. She’s nervous as the rest of the team files in, recognizing just a few familiar faces among a sea of new ones. After being on the team for the past four years, sticking out is a foreign feeling to her.

Filling Lauren’s place as Rochelle’s back spot, practicing the first stunt sequence proves frustrating for Alex, and the group has trouble accomplishing a stunt they were able to hit yesterday. Sure, Alex has back-spotted before, but adjusting to a new person feels a lot like a pianist learning a new song. The basic musical skills are present, but the fingers have yet to become familiar with the key progression.

As the group continues to practice, Alex tries to adjust to Rochelle’s habits as a flyer. But it’s still not working, and on top of that, Alex begins to feel a creeping soreness in her calves and thighs, a sensation that makes it painfully clear she’s no longer in cheerleading shape.

This is tough, she thinks to herself. I don’t know if I can do this for longer than a week.

Seeing that Alex is still having trouble with Rochelle’s group, Alicia moves her to Emma’s group, deciding that she’s not what Rochelle needs. And as coach, she needs to do what will work best for the team.

Alex feels a resurgence of confidence as she practices the stunt with this group, and her sore muscles begin to remember the feeling of catching and holding Emma in the air in much the same way as she did the year before. It’s a familiar feeling, a feeling Alex has deeply missed.

Soon, Emma starts to hit the first stunt, and Alex begins to settle into the rhythm of the team. She has the proper counts to the first stunt down, but there’s still dozens of eight-counts, formation changes and an entire dance to learn in under 72 hours. She’s not too frazzled, though — she knows she’s a fast learner. She thrives under pressure.

_____

Emma starts with one foot on the mat and the other foot in Danielle’s and Taylor Foster’s hands. Her eyes pointed upward, she concentrates on a spot on the wall, her target. With their legs in a deep squat and their hands gripping her single shoe, Danielle and Taylor take a deep dip and lift her in the air, their outstretched arms fighting the strength of gravity to hold Emma in the air. Even the slightest misplacement of hand to foot could cause Emma to fall straight through their fingers.

As she travels upward, Emma switches her standing leg, her foot easily falling into Danielle’s and Taylor’s grips like two puzzle pieces coming together. Performing this skill, Emma has no time to think about the absurdity of hopping from one foot to the other in barely a blink, with the only platform being the skin on a person’s palms. If she did, she’d fall.

Now standing sturdy on her other foot, Emma pulls the other foot to her knee, toe pointed, and raises her arms to make a V around her head.

Schaefer practices being a flyer during the team’s routine. CELISA CALACAL/THE ITHACAN

Stay tight. Squeeze your butt. Lift your hip. Don’t look down, look up. If you look up, you’ll stay up.

On the next third beat, Emma brings her other foot down into Danielle’s hands, and together Danielle and Taylor bring Emma down to shoulder level. With a bend of the knees, their legs shake, feeling Emma’s full weight before popping her into the air. Emma falls into her group’s arms with a dull thud, her brows furrowing and her eyes widening as apprehension clouds her face.

“Why didn’t you flip?” Danielle asks her with a mix of confusion and concern.

“I’m getting scared.” Emma’s voice is quiet, timid. She’s surprised. She just did the skill yesterday at practice — it should be a no-brainer at this point.

“OK, no ma’am,” Alicia says, her voice stern and her head shaking. “Not acceptable.”

Emma tightens her blonde ponytail in response and returns to her group. The stunt runs as smoothly as before — the switch-up is clean, and Emma hardly wobbles in the air. Then, Taylor and Danielle bring Emma down to their shoulders in preparation for the throw.

Flip, Emma tells herself, her forehead wrinkling in concentration. Come on, do it.

Emma folds her chest to her knees but fails to flip when her green eyes spot the floor in a split-second psych-out. She falls clumsily in her group’s arms, causing them to stumble sideways in an effort to safely catch her.

Watching from the front of the mats, Alicia isn’t too worried — Emma’s the most veteran flyer on the team. Alicia knows she’ll be fine. Even the most experienced people get a little mental sometimes.

After a quick water break, Alicia tells the team to run the routine full-out. With one knee on the floor, waiting for the music to play, Emma tries to quiet the nagging voice in her head telling her she can’t do it, that the unassisted front flip is actually really scary. She can’t freak out now, not with the team’s first competition just three days away. Her group is relying on her.

“Let’s go, Bombers!” the opening lines to the music play, startling Emma from her overthinking. She whips her head up and a smile appears on her face.

Once she reaches the second stunt, all Emma thinks about is the laundry list she must remember when she’s flying: stay tight, pull up, lock your knees, smile, don’t look down.

Flip.

Now free from Danielle, Taylor and Rachel Vota’s grips, Emma folds her body in half, flipping like a quarter through the air and landing in their arms. Emma’s smile grows even bigger now as she finishes the rest of the routine.

It was just all in her head.

Albany

The team secures one section of the bleachers overlooking the competition floor at the University of Albany sports arena. Dressed in their navy blue and white polyester uniforms, some members reapply their red lipstick, using the selfie cameras on their iPhones as a mirrors. Others take on the responsibility of teasing and reteasing everyone else’s ponytails, a process that requires combs, brushes and copious amounts of hairspray.

Alicia checks the time on her phone. 2:30 p.m. Time to get ready. She leads the team to the arena floor to stretch and warm up. Not every stunt is perfectly executed here, but Alicia is unfazed — win or lose, this competition is relatively inconsequential when compared to the behemoth that is the NCAs. It has no real significance on moving forward to Daytona, which makes it the perfect opportunity for rookies on the team to test the competition waters. It’s the dress rehearsal before opening night, and Alicia wants them to execute the routine well, just like she knows they can.

“And now, taking the floor,” a peppy male voice announces, “Ithaca College!”

The team members come running onto the mats, waving and smiling at the crowd as the overhead spotlights illuminate the floor. They take their places, drawing one last deep breath.

A beat of silence. Then, music.

Allowing their months’ worth of muscle memory to guide them, the team moves through the routine with an exuberance that was hard to find after rehearsing the routine again and again during those nighttime practices. This is their moment, a chance to prove to themselves that they can hit this routine.

Alex moves through the routine like she hadn’t just learned everything two days ago — it was like she’d been part of the team all along. As she lifts Emma into the air, the adrenaline-pumping, blackout-inducing thrill of competing floods her senses once more.

Once the two minutes and 15 seconds are over, which to some feels more like five seconds, the team hurries off the mat with bright smiles and astonished eyes.

They can’t believe it. That’s the best they’ve ever performed that routine.

After another hour, the awards ceremony finally begins. Swarms of cheer teams descend onto the mats, sitting in circles, anxiously waiting.

“If they win first place, I’m gonna cry,” Alicia says, half-jokingly and half-seriously. The IC team competed against three other college cheer teams from around the New York area, and all four teams displayed similar skill levels. And no team hit a flawless routine. Alicia knows IC scored a 90.35 out of 100. They have a chance.

The announcer begins to call out the placements for the collegiate division. Members of the team look at one another now, holding their breaths, eyebrows raised in nervousness. Only two teams left to call.

“In second place, SUNY Oneonta!”

A look of joyous disbelief washes over many faces as their minds follow this nerve-racking game of deduction. Finding it difficult to mask their emotions even before the announcer has officially said their name, several of the cheerleaders’ eyes widen in disbelief and their lips part in a knowing O-shape.

“Annnnnnd first place, Ithaca College!”

The entire team immediately leaps up from the mat, enveloping one another in jumping hugs and excited screams as a woman hands them a black banner that reads, “First Place.” Jillian looks back at Alicia, her mouth dropped open in a manner that suggests incredulous questions. How?

Alicia isn’t crying, but the shining grin stretching across her face is difficult to wipe off.  

The team goes over their routines during the football game against Hobart College on Sept. 30, 2017. CAITIE IHRIG/THE ITHACAN

 One Week

“Come on, Bree!”

“Don’t sink!”

“STAY TIGHT!”

Standing on one leg in her bases’ hands in the gymnastics room, Brianna Reed raises her free leg to extend it behind her, resembling a precarious sideways “T” several feet in the air. A smile frozen on her face — “I hit better when I’m smiling” — Bree anticipates the dip of Aisha Mughal and Jenna Gooch beneath her before dropping into the net of their outstretched arms. Alicia nods without smiling, 90 percent satisfied with how the team is progressing, except….

“I’m done seeing straight cradles,” Alicia tells Bree. “I need you to twist.”

They’re running out of time, and Alicia needs Bree to start executing this skill. If she doesn’t start working on it, she’ll never get there.

Bree hits the arabesque once more. Everything, technically, is still the same. The only difference is that Bree must now whip her body around to look like a human Twizzler in the air.

Bree only twists halfway this first time, instead resembling a flailing fish on her way down. She’s afraid to hurt her bases below, too aware of how easily she could elbow them in the face. Watching from a distance, Alicia pinches the bridge of her nose and squeezes her eyes shut, blowing air between her lips. Come. On.

The smile now gone from her face, Bree extracts herself from her group, prepared to try again.

It’s not that hard, it’s just a twist. Do it for the team. Do it for Daytona.

A delicate statue in the air, Bree twirls her body all the way around, landing upright in her group’s arms. They rub her on the shoulders, showering her with “good job!” and “that was so good!”

Alicia claps her hands together, and the team collectively pauses. She tells the team to grab water and then get in position to run the whole routine.

A few women run to the doors at the back of the room, desperate for some fresh air to cool the sweat clinging to their arms and legs. But the night is unseasonably humid, and the thick air provides little to no relief.

With just one more week until NCAs, they know they won’t win. Not when they’re a club sports team competing against Varsity programs. Not when they’ve placed 13th in All-Girl Division III for the past three years. Not when their skill set doesn’t match that of the other teams in the division. Not when they’ve had to raise more than $35,000 all year just to get to Daytona in the first place.

It was an uphill battle from the start.

Leaving the doors propped open, the team assembles in their three-line beginning formation.

“Breathe,” Alicia reminds the team. “You have time.”

One final, deep breath. “WHO ARE WE?” Jillian yells.

“IC!”

“Music’s on,” Alicia says. They launch into the routine, running through every single reminder their coach has ever told them.

Stay clean, point your toes, squeeze your legs together, remember the counts, stay tight, squeeeeeeze, lift your hip, keep your eyes on the flyer, dip with your legs, TWIST, big throws, ride UP before you tuck, listen to your teammates, stay in sync, count… in… your… head, SQUEEZE, don’t sink, don’t kick your leg out, SMILE, FLIP, twist off the front, hold the handstand, toss high, flip forward, move with a purpose, be sharp, DON’T FORGET TO SMILE.

And for God’s sake, breathe.

Four Hours

The alarm started blaring at 5 a.m. Get up, it’s competition day.

Rubbing the exhaustion from their eyes, the women begin the two-hour-or-so-long ordeal that is preparing for the biggest competition in collegiate cheerleading.

Jenna, Jillian and Rachel take over one of three mirrors in the hotel bathroom, hardly speaking as they apply foundation, smoky eyeshadow, mascara, concealer, blush, highlighter, lipstick — the typical comp day makeup look.

Hair comes next. Straighten first, using one of the two flat irons lying on the bathroom sink; gather the shiny, pin-straight hair into a high ponytail no lower than the top of the head; use excessive amounts of gel to ensure no flyaway strand can detach itself from the apparatus; thread the large gray cheer bow through the ponytail; and use lots of hairspray.

Jenna begins to braid a section of Jillian’s hair, pulling and weaving the strands, one over the other, with the speed of a baker frosting cakes for the millionth time. Every so often, she sweeps a lick of gel through Jillian’s brown-haired strands. The stiffer, the better.

At 6:40 a.m., the women leave the trio of mirrors to form a tease train on the bed. Kneeling one behind the other, hairbrush or teasing comb in hand, they begin to brush the roots of the ponytail down until the hair begins to peek just above the top of their heads.

6:45 a.m. Move it, they have to be in the lobby by 7 a.m.

Aisha rushes unannounced into the room. “Does anyone know how to put on false eyelashes?” A pair of synthetic, thick, black lashes is pinched between her fingers.

“No,” the women respond collectively.

7:00 a.m. Time to go.

With the entire team now in the lobby, Alicia leads the team outside the hotel to wait for the shuttle bus. The sun barely peeks out over the horizon of the Atlantic Ocean, showering the coastline with swaths of Florida-orange light. The women wait impatiently on the sidewalk, with some shielding their eyes from the gusts of coastal wind threatening to tear off their precarious false eyelashes.

It’s going to be a long day.

30 Minutes

The roaring will not stop. Filled with more than a dozen cheer teams scattered across sets of blue mats, the peppy, driving mix of cheer tracks blasted at full volume bounces off the slab concrete walls in the warm-up room, transforming it into a dense echo chamber filled with polyester-uniformed, hair-gelled cheerleaders.

The IC cheer team occupies a set of mats on the far side for warm-up. In these 15 minutes, Emma has trouble completing the entire first stunt sequence without falling. Holding her foot in the air, Danielle tries to ignore the pain shooting through her fingers.

The execution isn’t perfect, but Alicia isn’t concerned. She knows that when the adrenaline kicks in, Emma, Danielle, Taylor and Rachel will do everything in their power to keep the stunt up, no matter what. With warm-ups over, there’s nothing they can do now except quiet the anxiety and the nerves and the mind games in their head.

A man in a crisp black polo shirt directs the team out of the arena and down a series of carpeted hallways until they reach the backstage area. They walk by other cheer teams, exchanging wishes of good luck as they pass.

In the darkened waiting area inside the stadium, a tall black curtain that nearly touches the ceiling is the only separator between the teams on deck and the team on the floor.

With just two teams before them, Rochelle paces in place, rising waves of pre-comp jitters flooding her body. Intuitively, Rochelle knows the team won’t win that first-place title; older women on the team even told her so when she first joined.

But she didn’t join the team last year because she wanted to be on a team that wins NCAs. She tried out because, after 11 years of cheerleading, she wasn’t ready to give it up just yet. This competition, those fleeting two minutes and 15 seconds on the floor with her 16 teammates — that’s what she’s here for. What they’re all here for.

There’s just one team separating the IC cheer team from the performance floor. Time seems to be moving quicker. The team gathers into one last huddle, with members shouting last pieces of advice.

Leave it all on the mat. Have fun. We’ve got this. Believe in yourselves. Give it all you’ve got.

“And now performing in the All-Girl III, from Ithaca, New York, Ithaca College!”

As the women pour onto the floor, wide smiles on their faces, the spotlights from above cast a glaring fluorescent white onto the team, blinding them so they can hardly see into the crowd before them.

The team takes their position. They’re ready.

Sophomores Aisha Mughal and Jenna Gooch lift freshman Brianna Reed into the air. CELISA CALACAL/THE ITHACAN

The music starts, that all-too-familiar “Let’s go, Bombers” ringing in their ears. Right before the back handspring into the first stunt, Rochelle tells herself she’s gonna hit this. She has to — for herself, her stunt group and her team. And as Danielle holds Emma in the air, she’s not thinking about anything anymore: not which motion comes after what skill, not how the team is doing, not the counts and not even the sharp spasms in her wrist. None of that matters now.

Elevated in the air, the spotlights casting white on her face, Bree loses her bearings when pressed back up to the arabesque, her left leg kicking out and causing her weight to shift too rapidly over her right hip. She falls before she’s able to complete the sequence. During the second stunt, Rochelle sticks her butt out on her way to hit the heel stretch, falling just as fast as she got up. Right behind her, Emma Venard faces similar stability issues and tries to salvage the stunt by waving her arms to regain her balance. But she falls right before the front flip, her leg catching on Jillian’s shoulder so she turns upside down in her group’s arms.

Once the routine ends, the women run off the mat, and the actual physicality of their performance begins to set in. Danielle, who’s convinced she blacked out during the whole routine, grabs a makeshift bag of ice from the medical station to quell the throbbing in her hand.

The performance isn’t what the team had hoped for: The two falls in the second stunt will cost the team in deductions. Rochelle is silent backstage, attempting to steady her breath. She’s happy in spite of the fall — it was a fluke anyway. Everyone has one bad time.

Without even knowing their exact score, everyone knows it’s not enough to make it to finals. They had to be flawless to make it to the top seven out of this division of 13 teams, and they weren’t. But they still have one last chance to perform in the Bandshell: Challenge Cup, a mini-competition among the bottom six teams in All-Girl III. The team with the highest score will move on to Finals.

Gathering their belongings to exit the arena, the women try to fight off the initial feelings of disappointment lodged in their stomachs. There’s no time for that now. Challenge Cup is in seven hours.

30 Minutes

The team returns to the same expansive arena from this morning, only this time the roaring has subsided. At 5 p.m., the only teams left warming up are those competing in Challenge Cup. Earlier in the day, the women found out they scored 81 points, placing them at the bottom of the pack. The score stings, but that’s why there’s Challenge Cup. It’s a reset button offering a chance at redemption.

Taking their place on those familiar classic blue mats, some women let their eyes wander to these other teams, their competitors.

“Don’t watch them,” Alicia says sharply.

On the blue mats, many groups are having trouble with the stunts. In the first half of the pyramid, Bree loses balance and slips off the top, causing the whole formation to crumble in on itself. Emma also doesn’t hit the first stunt sequence. They’re getting nervous.

“Re-lax,” Alicia advises. “Focus on what you’re doing. This is what we came here to do. Don’t freak yourself out.” She knows they’re going to be OK — they just need to take it one step at a time and have fun.

After 15 minutes, the team exits the warm-up room to the backstage area they were in just nine hours ago. Teams have already started competing on the mats, but the Ocean Center has mostly emptied out by now. There’s no more cheering that can be heard from the other side.

The team huddles just before they take the stage, reminding one another of the same advice from this morning: Leave it all on the mat. Have fun. We’ve got this. Believe in yourselves. Give it all you’ve got.

“Now performing in All-Girl III, Ithaca College!”

The team takes the mat once more under the burning lights.

“Who are we?” Jillian yells.

“IC!”

Music’s on. The team moves through the routine for probably the hundredth time, their tired muscles taking over to perform every jump, flip, roll, toss and stunt. On the first stunt sequence, Emma V. begins to lose balance as she rotates in the air, and she topples into her group’s arms before she finishes the turn. Rochelle also falters on this first stunt and makes a safety call to not twist at the end. During the pyramid, Alicia can’t quite center herself as she’s pressed back up to shoulder level, and she plunges down, making it so Bree can’t perform her handstand trick.

The two minutes and 15 seconds are up.

The women exit behind the curtain, their shoulders slumped. That wasn’t the performance they wanted.

Twenty minutes later, the team finds themselves on the blue mats for the awards ceremony, knowing deep down that their dream of finals on the Bandshell is thinning into the air.

“In sixth place,” a sharp announcer’s voice begins.

The women stare down at the floor, eyes closed, breaths holding, hands tightly clasped together.

“Ithaca College.”

They finally release their breath, and one member receives the square plaque with their name and placement engraved into the dark wood. Sixth place in Challenge Cup. Thirteenth in the division. Last place.

Backstage after awards, the women can’t help but feel tinges of jealousy for the Endicott College cheerleaders celebrating their first-place win and a spot in Finals tomorrow.

Alicia gathers the team together.

“Remember this feeling,” she tells them, her voice steady as she looks at the disappointed eyes staring at her. “And use it to motivate you for next year.”

The Next Day

Friday finds the team at the Bandshell, laying on beach towels on the open-air floor as they watch other teams perform. They’re only spectators now, but it’s not all bad. After all, they still made it to Daytona.

“We’re more there for us,” Rochelle said. “We’re there to experience what other cheerleaders experience. We’re there to fight our hardest, just like everyone else.”

They knew they wouldn’t win or place in the top tier of teams coming in, but that didn’t really matter. They still got to learn new skills and compete and become part of this new family. And despite all the injuries and the rough practices and the mental blocks along the way, they still got to do what they love.

“We’re lucky enough to be here,” Danielle said. “Doesn’t matter if we got last.”

Celisa Calacal can be reached at ccalacal@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @celisa_mia