Fairfield University’s Cheer team competed for the first time at the National Cheer Association National Competition that was held on April 6 through 10 in Daytona Beach, Fla.
To qualify for nationals, all attending teams must receive a bid that permits them to compete. Fairfield Cheer received its bid at an NCA camp the team attended over the summer. Then, throughout the year, they worked on a routine to perform on the national stage.
The road to nationals was not the easiest for the team, according to captains Carly Manzi ‘23 and Emily Testa ‘23.
“The process [of] getting to nationals was definitely challenging throughout the year,” Testa said. “It felt like the most important year we ever had and we all knew we needed to work hard so we could perform well once we got there.”
Manzi noted that over the course of the year, the team needed “to work up to [performing the routine] physically and mentally.”
Every practice they had “ultimately affected” their performance in Daytona, Testa added. She stated, “there were some bad practices and then there were some really good practices which helped us to see at times what did work versus what didn’t work in our routine.”
Coach Taylor Wilkes, who graduated from Fairfield in 2013 and then again in 2019 when she received her MBA, discussed how big of a deal it was for the team to compete at nationals.
“NCA College Nationals is considered the pinnacle of college cheerleading competitions,” Wilkes said. “So, while we have competed locally, the stakes were higher and the talent around us was incredible.”
She added that the Stags competed in a “difficult division and got to watch some amazing teams.” For any “Cheer” fans out there, the Stags had the opportunity to watch Navarro College while at the competition.
Coming off of nationals, both captains feel confident.
“It was such a great experience to be in the realm of 350 schools surrounded by a bunch of athletes that all share the love of cheerleading,” Manzi said. “We hit our stunts perfectly both days, which was our biggest goal.”
Testa echoed this sentiment.
“It was such a major accomplishment having all of our stunts hit on the first day at prelims and also on the second day at finals,” Testa said. “Stunts are always a major part of the routine and we definitely struggled throughout the year with some of them, so we were proud of ourselves to have that go well.”
Outside of the competition though, Testa said of the trip overall: “We also just had so much fun while we were there all together, and the team is closer than ever now.”
While this was the first time any of these cheerleaders competed on the national stage repping Fairfield, this is not the team’s first time competing.
“Nationals in Daytona was so much different than any competition we have done in the past for so many reasons,” Testa said. “Daytona is every cheerleader’s dream; it is probably the most famous cheer competition in the world.”
Manzi explained that the other competitions the Stags have competed in were regional only, with just a few teams.
“It was incredible to be performing in front of so many people against teams [from] all over the country,” Manzi said.
Wilkes added that, “the focus this season was amplified since this was a much bigger competition and since we had never been there before” and the team “needed to be as prepared as possible.”
The preparation for nationals was more intense than their usual competition prep with the addition of a Showcase right before the team departed.
“An instrumental part of our process and preparation this year was undoubtedly our showcase,” Wilkes said. “We have never had so much support from friends, fellow athletes and various staff members.”
Wilkes continued, “Everyone showed up big, and the confidence that the girls got after hitting a great performance in front of fans was a huge reason why we felt ready for Daytona.”
Testa also noted the difference in performing for such a large and different audience than they are used to saying, “there is a lot more pressure when you are there because you know there will be more people watching you as well.”
On top of the change in the size of the audience, performing outdoors in Florida compared to inside gyms, how the team usually performs, was also a big point of difference for the team.
“We also had to perform outside in the wind and the heat of Florida, which we obviously have never done before, so we had to prepare for that,” Testa said. “Nationals is just a much bigger deal and it’s even a bigger accomplishment to say you performed there.”
Wilkes seconded this.
“Competing outdoors was also different than anything the team had ever done, and something we couldn’t prep for too much living in a cold weather climate,” Wilkes said. “However, the team handled it flawlessly and watching the team take the bandshell for the first time, right on the beach, was truly something special.”
Both captains are currently juniors, but have been on the team since their first year at Fairfield. After this season, they reflected on how far the program has come since they first joined.
“Watching the program grow from the start of my freshman year to now was so amazing,” Manzi said. “Whenever we had cheer at Fairfield for games, it was very obviously about other sports teams and we were their biggest supporters, but being able to attend nationals was so awesome because we finally felt like we were doing something for ourselves.”
Testa referenced the fact that this was their first time attending nationals saying, “it meant the world.”
Wilkes also saw nationals as a pivotal moment for the squad.
“We made history by going to this competition for the first time ever,” Wilkes said. “We put ourselves on the map and became even closer as a team — I know there were even a few of us crying with joy after we competed.”
She added that she is “so proud of everyone […] nationals was great” and that she “can’t wait to get back there next year.”
Overall, all members of the Fairfield Cheer team have seen immense growth in the program since they joined.
“This program has been growing so much since the time I started, and for us to have the opportunity to showcase our talent was the highlight of my entire cheerleading career so far,” Testa said. “It also meant so much knowing we had so many people supporting us in going.”
“We are on the right track to continue growing our program, so continued dedication to the team, hard work and a positive attitude is what I will always look for in my athletes,” Wilkes added on. “With those pieces in place, we can only succeed.”
She continued to say, “Watching this team evolve and become increasingly competitive year over year has truly been amazing, and it’s only up from here.”
Something greatly appreciated by the squad was how much support they have had from the University community.
According to Testa, those supporters included other athletic teams, athletic directors, professors and “everyone around us that cared about us” since “they were so happy for us, which made all the difference.”
Manzi added, “The support from Fairfield Athletics, specifically Fairfield [Women’s Basketball], family and friends was so overwhelming and I could not be more proud of who we are and what this team has accomplished.”
Nationals closed off a great season had by the women on the Cheer team who Wilkes described as “incredible athletes and even better people.”
“This squad was probably the best team I’ve ever coached — not just talent but attitude and togetherness,” Wilkes said. “They truly became a family both on and off the mat, and as a coach who strives to create a positive and hardworking environment for my team, I couldn’t ask for anything more.”