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How Savannah State became the first HBCU to win a national cheerleading title

Things were looking grim before the CheerSport competition, but a come-to-Jesus talk helped flip the script

Call it a series of unfortunate events or maybe even Murphy’s Law — everything that can go wrong will go wrong — but days before Savannah State was to return to the CheerSport Nationals last month after a four-year hiatus, it seemed as if the team had been bitten by the most poisonous of snakes.

Coach Timothy Grant scheduled an exhibition tune-up before the team took off for the tournament to build some momentum. But the cheerleaders didn’t perform as well as they wanted, which hurt their confidence. There were breakdowns as the team went through its partner stunts and other aspects of its routine.

Then one of Savannah State’s key athletes went down with an ankle injury, taking her out of the tournament.

With 10 minutes left in the team’s final practice before the tournament, Grant was watching his team bicker and decided to give one of his famous speeches.

“At this point, I have equipped you with everything I know, for y’all to be successful. Only thing left is for y’all to get on stage and make up in your minds and have the determination to get out there and do this to the level you’re capable of doing it.”

It was a come-to-Jesus moment. The athletes started to form a prayer circle, asking for guidance through those recent trials and to carry them to victory in the upcoming two-day tournament in Atlanta.

But first, the squad wanted to successfully execute a full-speed, all-out version of their competition routine without any hiccups.

They hadn’t managed a flawless routine yet during that practice. But after collecting themselves, they were able to run through the entire CheerSport Nationals choreography without any issue. And that was the moment Grant described as the turning point.

“I feel like that was the breakthrough, that was the moment when they were like ‘Wow, we can really do this,’ ” the second-year coach said. “It was heartwarming, especially because I feel like a lot of the things I say fall on deaf ears. Sometimes I don’t think they understand the things I’m trying to tell them, so for them to do that, it let me know, hey, they are listening, they do understand what I’m saying, and they are applying what I’m saying.”

On Feb. 19, Savannah State became the first historically black university to win a CheerSport Nationals title, when it defeated Australia’s ZSA, 87.62-86.13. The last time the Tigers participated in the three-day event, they took home eighth place in 2013 under coach Kellie Fletcher.


for the love of the jackets

Part of the motivation, sophomore Mallori Santiful explained, was the championship jackets.

“It’s our equivalent to a ring — it’s something to show off,” Santiful said. “You can’t always have the trophy around. You won’t always have the banner around. But you can wear your jacket every day and everyone on campus congratulates you.

“We wanted everyone to know the day after CheerSport, and it was 80 degrees outside. Everyone was like jackets and shorts? Jackets and sandals? Yeah, we wanted to wear our jackets.”

When the team arrived at the Georgia World Congress Center on Feb. 17, the group made its way to the Hard Rock Cafe for lunch and proceeded to practice. On the first day of the competition, the Tigers went through conditioning exercises, stretching, a quick stunt run-through and a warm-up.

Because there are as many as 1,000 people in the warm-up room, Grant was worried about the team losing focus. But Santiful said quite the opposite occurred.

“We saw our competition warming up beside us, and we were like, ‘We got it,’ ” she recalled. “Cheerleading is like any other sport, you want to win. You get pumped up, you get excited, you get hype.”

Teammates combed over the routine, offering encouragement and pointers. After an hour of going through stunts, tumbling and partner stunts stations, team went behind stage for 20 minutes, waiting to perform.

The first day counts for 25 percent of a team’s score, with the second day’s performance worth 75 percent.

For senior captain Morgan Moore, who was with the team the first time the Tigers attended CheerSport in 2013, the victory was an overwhelming, indescribable moment. Teammates were crying, hugging, screaming and bouncing up and down with joy.

“I held [the jacket,] I couldn’t do anything but stare at it,” said Moore, 21.

It only got better the next day when the team found out that actress Gabrielle Union, the lead in the movie Bring It On, saw the news of the team’s accomplishment and tweeted about it.

Moore, who had a deactivated Twitter account at the time, said she quickly reactivated it when she heard Union had given the team recognition.

“Gabrielle Union is a great figure for the African-American community, and for women especially,” said Moore, a business management major. “Of course with her being in Bring It On and connected to that movie, and it was just … an amazing feeling because she’s just a great role model for women and girls.”

Savannah State honored the women the following Monday by bringing them to midcourt during the halftime of the men’s basketball game against Coppin State.

To cap off Black History Month, Savannah State was also featured on ESPN’s SportsCenter on Feb. 26.

sAvannah stATE cheer wasn’t built in a day

Grant, a 41-year-old Washington, D.C. native, came to the program after coaching competitive cheerleading in Atlanta. When Grant became the director of the Savannah Shark All-Stars, he called his mentor, F. Carl Walton, Savannah State’s vice president of student affairs, to let him know he was in the area.

A week later, Walton called Grant to let him know that the coaching job for the cheerleading team was going to open up and he should apply. Grant did and took on the job besides coaching his four other cheer squads.

Coming into the program, Grant decided he needed more advanced tumblers, more experienced fliers and realized he was going to have to hit the recruiting trail hard.

“There was minimum talent as far as advanced tumbling, and as far as partner stunting skills,” Grant said. “I knew if we were going to be doing competitive cheerleading, I knew we’d need more talent than what already existed.”

Besides getting evaluated on how challenging their routines are and how well they are executed, cheerleading teams also get scored on the number of athletes on the team performing certain skills. Grant brought in four girls he had coached in the past, meaning he had worked previously with half of the 13 athletes on the team.

Next was getting the team into a rigorous training schedule: Twice a week from 5:50 a.m. to 7 a.m., the Tigers do strength and conditioning work. From 7 to 8 a.m., they practice stunts. Three days a week, Grant has the team meet him at his Sharks All-Star gym for regular practice from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m.

Savannah State’s cheerleading team can be found on the sideline of football games, which transitions into men’s and women’s basketball season, and both basketball seasons bleed into preparation for CheerSport Nationals. The team concludes its year in early April with the NCA College Nationals in Daytona, Florida.

“They’re still trying to balance being a college student and being a part of an extracurricular activity that’s demanding as far as your time and physical energy. I have no time to myself and my spouse hates me at times,” said Grant.

Grant, Santiful and Moore said they didn’t envision this type of result happening so soon. The belief was that the team was still a few years from taking home first-place awards and championship trophies.

But the key, Moore explained, was being open to the changes Grant was bringing to the organization. The athletes not only had the “Stomp-N-Shake” down pat, but with Grant’s arrival, the team also was immersed in the technical aspects of cheer.

Santiful described the feeling as similar to her favorite part in Bring It On when Union stood in the middle of the gym and everyone paid attention. All eyes are on the Savannah State Tigers cheerleading team, and these Tigers have their eyes set on the NCA College Nationals.

“Hey, we won something, but is this really enough?” Santiful asked. “We’re a performing team and the best thing that we do is perform, so once we hit the mat, everything snaps into place.

“I definitely think we’re capable of winning everything. … If we can win CheerSport, we can definitely win Daytona National.”

Rhiannon Walker is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a drinker of Sassy Cow Creamery chocolate milk, an owner of an extensive Disney VHS collection, and she might have a heart attack if Frank Ocean doesn't drop his second album.