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N.C. A&T cheerleaders pursue win as HBCU presence grows at national competition

Championship hosts a record-high 12 teams from Black colleges this year

In competitive cheerleading, participants have only 2 minutes and 15 seconds to earn a perfect score of 100, with tumbling, stunts and degree of difficulty among the many factors that can distinguish a first-place team from a runner-up.

Since 1948, the National Cheerleading Association (NCA), founded by “the grandfather of modern cheerleading” Lawrence “Herkie” Herkimer, has provided an innovative camp curriculum and held championships and other events for cheerleaders in the United States of all ages. This week, the NCA and the National Dance Alliance (NDA) will host more than 400 teams in Daytona Beach, Florida, at the annual NCA & NDA Collegiate Cheer and Dance Championship.

In 2022, five historically Black colleges and universities participated in the competition; this year it includes a record-high 12 HBCUs, six of which are competing at the event for the first time.

Daniel Kearns-Pickett, head cheerleading coach at North Carolina A&T State University, competed at the championship with his alma mater, North Carolina State University, from 2010-2014. North Carolina A&T is among the HBCUs debuting at the event this year.

“I will say it’s more diverse. NCA offers a variety of divisions. When I was in NCA, it was intermediate and advanced, but now they have rally and game day, so it allows more teams the opportunity to compete at the collegiate level,” Kearns-Pickett said.

North Carolina A&T will compete against 20 schools in its division, including historically Black universities Florida A&M, Bethune-Cookman, Morgan State and Alabama A&M.

In last year’s competition, Morgan State finished second in the intermediate all-girl division, behind winner California Baptist University. Florida A&M finished third.

Morgan State University’s cheerleading team finished second in 2022 in the intermediate all-girl division at the NCA & NDA Collegiate Cheer and Dance Championship.

Morgan State Athletics

“NCA is the competition of all collegiate competitions. It’s where all the teams in the nation who have a bid come, competing against the best of the best. It’s the one that you think about when you’re growing up,” Kearns-Pickett said.

“I remember being a kid watching NCA on TV and looking at NC State and watching them cheer on the beach, looking at the ocean. It was just something I always wanted to do. Now I get to coach it.”

Carmen Haywood, a third-year cheerleader at North Carolina A&T, said she is excited to compete – especially while representing an HBCU.

“It really sets the precedent for a lot of other HBCUs, little girls and boys, and it’ll give more representation in that area. I feel like that’s very imperative to have,” Haywood said. 

“As my coach has said multiple times, us literally getting on the bus is history. Us even signing up is history. So to be able to get this far and actually execute and be able just to compete is amazing. Many people on our team are competing here for the first time, so it will definitely be an unforgettable experience.”

While many people are accustomed to seeing the team on the sidelines of football and basketball games, few know the work that goes on behind the scenes, Kearns-Pickett said. 

“We practice a lot, pretty much every day of the week with the exception of Wednesdays and Saturdays. At this point, they work their tails off,” he said. “They have morning workouts, twice a week, which is lifting weights. But we also do a lot of cardio.

“There’s also a big mental and spiritual part that goes into it. We pray a lot as a team. I think that helping us continue our journey within mental strength is a big part, too.”

North Carolina A&T cheerleading captain Alivia Barrow said having the proper mentality is essential for performing well.

“I think if you have the right mindset and a positive mindset, you can hit anything,” Barrow said. “Nothing really matters the day you compete. It doesn’t matter how many times you run the routine or how many times you complete the stunt, because at the end of the day it’s going to be who wants it more once you hit that performance mat.”

Besides gaining mental toughness through cheerleading, athletes also learn more about themselves in the process, Haywood said.

“There are different people on the team, and with that, it allows you to see different aspects of yourself, a little bit more in tune instead of suppressing it and actually approaching it, and you’re like, ‘Wow, this is who I am. This is what I like, this is what I don’t like,’ ” she said.

Because the championship is not widely publicized, many HBCUs are unaware of it, Kearns-Pickett said. 

“I feel like at any other sporting event, there’s always a camera or pictures or things on social media and the website. I think that the cheerleading program could definitely use more of that, just getting it out there, the information,” he said.

Becoming a coach has given him a fresh perspective on the competition.

“I feel like, as an athlete, I could control what happened on the mat,” Kearns-Pickett said. “As a coach, all I can do is count them down, and then the rest is in their hands.”

Liner Notes

What: NCA & NDA Collegiate Cheer and Dance Championship When: April 6-8 Watch: https://tv.varsity.com

Alexis Black is a senior multimedia journalism student from Prince George’s County, Maryland. She is a contributor for The A&T Register, a student reporter for Aggie News and a student-athlete with N.C. A&T’s cheerleading program.